People v. Wilkins

The Recorder

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Cal.Sup.Ct.
S190713

The California Supreme Court reversed a decision of the court of appeal. The court held that the trial court heearing a felony murder case erred prejudicially in denying the defendant’s request for instruction on the escape rule where the victim died in a car accident more than 60 miles from the scene of the underlying felony.

Cole Wilkins stole several appliances from a vacant home. He loaded them into the back of a pickup truck. In his haste to leave the scene unnoticed, he failed to secure the appliances in the back of his truck. Wilkins was 60 miles away when a stove fell from the back of his truck. It landed in the middle of a crowded freeway, triggering a string of car accidents. In the resulting melee, one person was killed.

Wilkins was charged with burglary and felony murder. At trial, the court instructed the jury that in order for Wilkins to be convicted of felony murder, the People had to prove that the burglary and the act causing the death “were part of one continuous transaction.” The court instructed further that such a continuous transaction “may occur over a period of time in more than one location.” The court refused to instruct on the escape rule, which terminates a felony at the point the perpetrator reaches a place of temporary safety.

Wilkins was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life.

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that the trial court did not err in refusing to instruct on the escape rule. The appellate court reasoned that the cause of the accident was Wilkins’s haste and lack of care at the time he fled the scene of the burglary. It was Wilkins’s failure to secure the load that caused the victim’s death. Because he was still at the scene of the burglary when this wrongful act occurred, the distance he drove before the stove fell from his truck was irrelevant.

The California Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals decision, holding that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct on the escape rule.

The court explained that a causal nexus between the burglary and the fatal car accident was not sufficient, standing alone, to trigger application of the felony murder rule. As explained in People v. Cavitt (2004) 33 Cal.4th 187, “the felony-murder rule requires both a causal relationship and a temporal relationship between the underlying felony and the act resulting in death.” The causal relationship is established by a “logical nexus” between the felony and the homicidal act, and the temporal relationship is established by proof the felony and the homicidal act were part of a single “continuous transaction.”

Here, substantial evidence at trial supported instruction on the escape rule. Wilkins was 62 miles away from the scene of the burglary when the stove fell off his truck and he had been driving on the freeway at normal speeds for about an hour. There was no evidence that anyone was following him or that anyone was even aware of the burglary.

A jury could have concluded that the fatal act occurred when the stove fell off the truck and that Wilkins had reached a place of temporary safety before the fatal act occurred. Indeed, the trial court implicitly concluded that an instruction clarifying the relationship between the felony and the killing was necessary, because it chose to instruct the jury with CALCRIM No.549, a instruction designed to be used only if the evidence raises an issue of whether a felony and a homicide were part of one continuous transaction. On this record, the trial court erred in denying defense counsel’s request for instruction on the escape rule.

The court found the standard of prejudice applicable to the trial court’s instructional error was harmless error. Given the trial court’s instruction on the “continuous transaction” element of felony murder, the absence of an instruction on the escape rule rendered the instructions incomplete and misleading. Under these instructions, even a juror who believed that Wilkins had reached a place of temporary safety before the fatal act occurred would have no reason to conclude that he or she had to find the defendant not guilty of first degree murder. The instructions given thus amounted to misinstruction on an element of the offense of first degree murder.

Finally, the court concluded the error could not be deemed harmless. Given the evidence, the court found a reasonable probability that a jury properly instructed on the escape rule would have concluded that Wilkins had reached a place of temporary safety before the fatal act occurred and was therefore not guilty of felony murder.

Cantil-Sakauye, C.J., joined by Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Chin, Corrigan, and Liu, JJ.

 

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