California Court Reverses Murder Conviction Based on Lower Court’s Improper Evidentiary Ruling

Last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California homicide case discussing the defendant’s challenge to the lower court’s decision not to admit certain evidence pertaining to the victim. Ultimately, the court agreed with the defendant, reversing his conviction for murder in the second degree.

In any California criminal trial, one of the many roles of the judge is to act as a gatekeeper of the evidence. Relying on the California Evidence Code, the court will determine which evidence is admissible.

In this case, the defendant was charged for murder related to the shooting death of another man. The evidence showed that the defendant and the victim each fired shots at each other. While the victim shot 15 shots, missing each time, the defendant shot twice, killing the victim.

The defendant testified at trial, explaining that he and the victim knew each other and that they got into an argument outside of a mutual friend’s home when the defendant did not greet the victim. Things escalated, and the victim pulled out and racked a gun. The defendant, acting on impulse, drew his gun and shot the victim twice. The defendant recalled the victim shot at him.

At trial, the defendant sought admission of certain evidence about the victim suggesting he had a character for violence. Specifically, the defendant wanted to introduce evidence of the following:

  • The victim allegedly committed a shooting 10 days before the incident;
  • The victim had a past history of domestic violence;
  • The victim had prior firearm convictions;
  • The victim had schizophrenia that was linked with violent outbursts;
  • The victim had methamphetamine in his blood on the night of the shooting.

The trial court denied the defendant’s request, and the defendant was subsequently convicted. He appealed, arguing that the evidence of the victim’s character for violence should have been admitted.

On appeal, the court agreed with the defendant, reversing his murder conviction. The court explained that evidence that is intended to prove that a person acted in accordance with a specific character trait is generally prohibited; however, under the “violent victim” rule, evidence of a victim’s violent nature may be admissible to prove that a defendant acted reasonably in self-defense.

Here, the prosecution actually admitted that the lower court made an improper ruling because the evidence was relevant to the defendant’s self-defense claim. However, the prosecutors argued that the evidence was also more prejudicial than it was probative, and should be excluded under California Evidence Code section 352. However, the court rejected the prosecution’s argument, noting that the determination of who drew their weapon first was of critical importance in the case.

As a result of the court’s decision, the defendant’s conviction was reversed.

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