A mistake in instructing the jury on a superfluous element of a crime does not constitute instructional error. A jury convicted Matthews of a first degree murder committed on December 3, 1978 and found true three special circumstances (that the murder was committed during the commission of robbery, kidnapping, and rape). The jury was instructed under the 1977 version of the special circumstance statute, which required that the defendant “physically aid” in the death. Matthews appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the special circumstance finding must be overturned because the jury instruction failed to define “physically aided,” even though that element was eliminated from the statute effective November 8, 1978. Held: Affirmed. The validity of a conviction is dependent upon whether the jury was correctly instructed on the elements of a crime; mistakes in instructing on facts that are not elements do not undermine the validity of a conviction. This rule prevents absurd results and maintains separation of powers. When a jury instruction sets forth all the elements of the charged crime but incorrectly adds an additional element, a sufficiency of the evidence challenge should be assessed against the elements of the charged crime, not against the erroneously heightened command in the jury instruction. Here, the jury found true all elements of the special circumstance statute in place on December 3, 1978 beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant was not prejudiced by the mistaken addition of this superfluous element. Any reduction in the burden of proving a fact the People were not statutorily required to prove is not a cognizable statutory or constitutional error.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/B286202.PDF