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Name: People v. Gonzalez
Case #: S234377
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 06/04/2018

Although the trial court erroneously failed to instruct on murder with malice aforethought, its lesser included offenses, and defenses, the jury’s finding on a robbery special circumstance rendered the error harmless. Three defendants were convicted of first degree felony murder and the jury found true a special circumstance allegation that the murder was committed during a robbery. Firearm allegations were found not true. On appeal, the defendants argued the trial court’s failure to instruct on the lesser included offenses (LIOs) of murder with malice aforethought, its lesser offenses, and its defenses was prejudicial error. The Court of Appeal determined any error was harmless and the California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Affirmed. The information charged defendants with malice murder. Thus, the trial court was required to instruct on the LIOs of murder with malice aforethought and its defenses if there was substantial evidence that defendants committed the lesser, but not the greater, offense. The trial court instructed only on first degree felony murder. The prejudice that arises from failure to instruct on LIOs and defenses is that the jury, faced with an all or nothing choice between first degree murder and acquittal, convicted defendants of first degree felony murder even though the prosecution failed to satisfy its burden. Assuming that substantial evidence would have supported instruction on the lesser offenses, the error was harmless. The jury’s robbery murder special circumstance finding required additional elements beyond those necessary to convict of felony murder and reflects that the jury did not find the defendants committed a lesser crime than felony murder. Thus, there was no reasonable probability the jury would have reached a more favorable result absent the error. [Editor’s Note: Justice Liu dissented, joined by Justice Kruger. He would have held “there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached an outcome more favorable to defendants if it had been instructed with malice murder and its lesser included offenses and related defenses, instead of being presented with an all-or-nothing choice between finding felony murder or no homicide offense at all.”]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: