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Name: People v. Merritt
Case #: S231644
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 03/20/2017

Trial court’s error in failing to instruct the jury on the elements of robbery was not reversible per se and was instead harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Merritt was charged with robbery. The trial court failed to instruct the jury on any of the elements of robbery aside from the requisite mental state and the jury convicted him. The Court of Appeal concluded the error was reversible per se under People v. Cummings (1993) 4 Cal.4th 1233. The Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. While Cummings held that a failure to instruct the jury on all or nearly all the elements of an offense is reversible per se, the United States Supreme Court has since clarified that failing to instruct on the elements of an offense is subject to harmless error analysis because, unlike a defective reasonable doubt instruction, it is not an error that necessarily vitiates all the jury’s findings. (See Neder v. United States (1999) 527 U.S. 1.) The court here concluded that the rule of Cummings was no longer valid in light of Neder. While the error in this case vitiated a number of findings, the jury still found (1) that defendant acted with the mental state required for robbery, (2) that he used a firearm, and (3) that he was the perpetrator. Additionally, both attorneys described all the elements of robbery during their closing arguments. The jury received complete and correct instructions on the question of identity, which was the only contested issue at trial (defense counsel conceded during closing argument that the perpetrator committed robbery). Further, there was overwhelming evidence that the robberies occurred. Based on the circumstances of this case, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. [Editor’s Note: Justice Cuéllar dissented, concluding that failing to instruct the jury on all the elements of an offense should remain structural error because it undermines the integrity of the entire judicial process.]

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