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Name: People v. Peau
Case #: A138683
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 05/07/2015

Trial court’s failure to instruct on voluntary manslaughter based on sudden quarrel or heat of passion was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the jury convicted appellant of willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder. Peau shot and killed Guzman outside the home where Guzman lived with the Vasquez family, including Gerardo. The shooting occurred after Guzman and Gerardo told Peau, a family friend, to stay away from the Vasquez home because he had sold Gerardo a stolen car. Peau was convicted of first degree murder with use of a firearm. On appeal, Peau claimed the trial court prejudicially erred by not instructing on voluntary manslaughter based on sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Held: Affirmed. The jury was instructed on voluntary manslaughter based on unreasonable self-defense and told that provocation may reduce a murder from first to second degree. Peau sought a new trial based on the court’s failure to give a heat-of-passion instruction. The Court of Appeal did not decide whether the evidence gave rise to a sua sponte duty to instruct on heat-of-passion, however, because it found that any instructional error was harmless. The jury necessarily rejected the possibility that Peau acted in the heat of passion by finding that he committed deliberate, premeditated, murder. The court disagreed with People v. Ramirez (2010) 189 Cal.App.4th 1483, 1488 (relying on People v. Berry (1976) 18 Cal.3d 509 to conclude “that the erroneous omission of an instruction on heat of passion voluntary manslaughter is not rendered harmless by a jury determination that the defendant was guilty of first degree murder rather than second degree murder”).

Prosecutor’s characterization of imperfect self-defense as a “loophole” was harmless misconduct. Peau claimed that his due process rights were violated when the prosecutor characterized imperfect self-defense as a “loophole” that was inapplicable and should not be used to allow Peau to escape responsibility for the murder. While agreeing the comments were improper, the Court of Appeal concluded the issue was forfeited because no objection was made to the argument below. Because any harm from the improper statements could have been cured by admonitions, the argument may not be raised absent objection. Further, the statements were harmless because the prosecutor also argued that the defense was inapplicable in this case, the jury was adequately instructed on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect self-defense, and the jury was told not to consider closing statements as evidence.