People v. Washington

Decision Date16 September 1969
Docket NumberCr. 11991
Citation80 Cal.Rptr. 567,458 P.2d 479,71 Cal.2d 1061
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 458 P.2d 479 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Vassie WASHINGTON, Jr., Defendant and Appellant.

David M. Rothman, Los Angeles, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for defendant and appellant.

Thomas C. Lynch, Atty. Gen., William E. James, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Bradley A. Stoutt, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

SULLIVAN, Justice.

Defendant Vassie Washington, Jr. was charged in count I of an information with the murder of Tijuana Sprewell (Pen.Code, § 187), in counts, II, III and IV with the attempted murders of Natasha Washington, Bobby Washington and Anthony Chambers (Pen.Code, § 664), and in count V with arson. (Pen.Code, § 447a.) He was also charged with two prior felony convictions which he admitted. A jury found defendant guilty on all counts and fixed the penalty on the murder count at death. Defendant was sentenced on the murder count to death. 1 This appeal is automatic. (Pen.Code, § 1239, subd. (b).)

Viewing the record in the light most favorable to the People as we are bound to do following a guilty verdict (People v. Teale (1969) 70 A.C. 532, 537, 75 Cal.Rptr. 172, 450 P.2d 564), we proceed to set forth the pertinent facts. At some time between 6:30 amd 7:30 p.m. on November 26, 1966, defendant and Bobby Miles went in defendant's automobile to the home of Clifford Hayes in Long Beach to play cards. Both men had spent the morning and early afternoon together drinking whiskey and beer, had parted and had met again in the early evening.

About 9:15 p.m. defendant, accompanied by one Smith, left the card game to look for defendant's wife, Vernie Washington, at the apartment of one of her friends, Dorothy Procks, also in Long Beach. Upon defendant's arrival, one of Dorothy's brothers told defendant Vernie was not there, although in fact she was. Apparently defendant did not believe the brother and an altercation ensued in the alley behind Dorothy's house between defendant and another of Dorothy's brothers. During the course of this fight defendant was struck on the forehead by a large piece of wood which caused a laceration over defendant's eye. Defendant, thereupon, seized another piece of wood, entered Dorothy's apartment and smashed some of her furniture and light fixtures. Dorothy at this time was in an upstairs neighbor's apartment with Vernie, and, hearing the disturbance in her apartment, called the police. By the time they arrived, however, defendant had left.

Defendant was driven away in another car to Bobby Miles' home and one of his friends moved defendant's Oldsmobile and parked it near the intersection of 21st and Orange Streets. Miles, seeing that defendant was injured, took him to a hospital in defendant's other car, a Cadillac, which had been in Miles' possession. They arrived at the hospital between 10 and 11 p.m. but defendant was refused treatment because he would not sign certain forms required by the hospital. The admitting clerk testified that defendant did not appear to be either intoxicated or dazed.

Defendant and Miles then drove around Long Beach and Anaheim in the Cadillac. About 11:30 p.m., as they approached the intersection of 21st and Orange Streets in Long Beach, they saw defendant's Oldsmobile on fire and firemen attempting to extinguish the blaze. Miles parked the Cadillac and defendant got out and approached the burning car.

Fireman Lundin testified that defendant asked him to open the trunk because there was a can of gasoline inside. The fireman, believing that defendant was concerned with the danger of the can exploding, reassured defendant that the fire was under control and that there was nothing to worry about. Defendant, however, replied, 'The hell with the fire, man. I want the gasoline.' Since defendant had no key to the trunk, Lundin refused to force it open. Defendant, after trying to open the trunk with a tire iron, walked away. Fireman Lundin testified that he later found a 'jeep' can of gasoline in the trunk and four or five Texaco Texamatic transmission fluid cans in the rear seat.

Defendant returned to his Cadillac and told Miles he was going to drive to his mother's house. Miles left on foot. Rickey Ivey, a 14-year-old boy who was acquainted with defendant and was also present at the scene of the car fire, testified that just before defendant drove off alone in the Cadillac, he heard him say, 'I am going to get that dirty whore.' 2 Defendant then drove away on Orange Street toward the Pacific Coast Highway.

Clarence Strickland, the attendant at the Parks Texaco Station at Pacific Coast Highway and Lewis Street, about a half mile from the car fire, testified that defendant came into the station between 11 p.m. and midnight. He asked Strickland for a can of gasoline and Strickland gave him some in a one quart Texamatic transmission fluid container with one hole punched in the top. Defendant appeared to Strickland to be coherent and sober. He drove away quickly. Ten or fifteen minutes later Strickland heard fire sirens.

At 11:55 p.m. Fireman Lundin's unit, which was still at the scene of the car fire, received an alarm for a fire at apartment 7, 1349 Wesley Drive, Vernie Washington's residence. Lundin's unit was the first to reach the building; when he entered the burning apartment he found in a hallway four-year-old Natasha Washington who had been burned. He discovered that the fire was in the south bedroom of the two- bedroom apartment. Lundin heard a child crying in the corner of the burning room, but because of the intense heat and smoke, could not reach her. Shortly thereafter another fireman with special breathing equipment was able to rescue the child, 17-month-old Tijuana Sprewell, Vernie Washington's daughter. The child was badly burned and was removed to a hospital by ambulance.

In the north bedroom of the apartment the firemen found a Texaco Texamatic can similar to the can in which Strickland gave defendant gasoline. A small amount of liquid was left in the can and the firemen concluded that it was inflammable. The police seized the can as evidence. There were smudged fingerprints on it and, on the rim, a red substance later identified to be human or animal blood. The blood was in such a position that when the fingers of the left hand were placed on the smudged fingerprints, the red substance was located at the web of the hand between the thumb and forefinger. Defendant, when arrested, had a small cut on the webbing of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger.

The fire for the most part was located in the south bedroom, but there were small spot fires on the carpet in the living room and hallway. An arson investigator of the Long Beach Fire Department was of the opinion that the fire was caused by human hands because of the presence of the spot fires. Based on his experiments he concluded that the fire was started by gasoline.

Anthony Chambers, Vernie's nine-year-old son, testified that on the night of the fire he was lying in bed awake. He slept in the south bedroom in the same bed with his two sisters, Natasha and Tijuana; Bobby Washington, Anthony's brother, slept in another bed in the same room. The children were alone in the apartment and in their beds when Anthony heard a window in the living room slide open and then heard the front door open. 3 A light went on in the kitchen and Anthony saw defendant enter the south bedroom. Defendant had a can in his hand and was holding a towel up to his head; there was blood on his grey sweater. According to Anthony the Texamatic can later found in the apartment looked like the can he had seen in defendant's hand. Defendant poured the contents of the can onto Bobby's bed and on the floor and lit a match causing the fluid to ignite. He then took the can into the north bedroom, put it down and left the apartment. Anthony got out of bed and went into the living room. He looked out of the window and saw defendant going down the stairs. He then returned to his bedroom and from the window saw defendant's Cadillac moving down the alley behind the building. Anthony finally went to a neighbor's apartment and informed her of the fire.

Rickey Ivey was on his way home from the car fire and noticed smoke coming from the apartment where he knew Anthony Chambers lived. When he reached the apartment building he saw defendant's Cadillac moving down the alley but he could not see the driver. About the same time he saw Anthony run down the stairs to another apartment.

The evidence also showed that earlier in the evening, between 10 and 10:30 p.m., police officers, accompanied by Vernie Washington, went to the latter's apartment to find defendant and question him with regard to his actions at Dorothy Procks' apartment. Defendant was not there. The officers testified that they did not see a Texamatic can anywhere in the apartment.

Lucille Douglas, Vernie's mother, testified that on the night of the fire police officers brought Bobby Washington and Anthony Chambers to her house. Anthony was crying and shaking and was 'pretty upset (and) hysterical.' He told Lucille that 'Vassie had burned his baby, had set fire to his baby and burned her.'

Bobby Miles testified that a maximum period of five minutes elapsed from the time defendant left the scene of the car fire until defendant returned to Miles' home. In Miles' opinion defendant could not have set the fire in that period if he first had to go to the Parks Texaco Station.

Dr. David Wood testified for the People that Tijuana Sprewell died on December 12 as a result of burn injuries sustained in the fire. She was 17 months old. The court refused to admit into evidence pictures taken of Tijuana at the hospital because it felt that their prejudicial effect outweighed their probative value. However, the doctor was permitted to testify that portions of Tijuana's fingers came off when dressings were changed...

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