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Name: People v. Prock
Case #: B239184
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 6
Opinion Date: 04/23/2014

At appellant’s trial for second degree murder, the prosecution was not collaterally estopped from arguing that appellant planned to and intended to kill the victim even though appellant was acquitted of first degree murder at his first trial. After a confrontation with the victim and his friends at a gas station, appellant threatened to kill the group and told them “I have guns and knives, I’ll be back.” He then went to his nearby home, retrieved a kitchen knife, returned to the gas station, and fatally stabbed the victim. At appellant’s first trial, a jury acquitted him of first degree murder, but convicted him of second degree murder. After his direct appeals, a federal court granted defendant’s habeas corpus petition and ordered a new trial. At his second trial, a jury again convicted appellant of second degree murder. On appeal, he contended that double jeopardy principles collaterally estopped the prosecution from urging the jury to convict appellant of second degree murder on the theory that he planned or premeditated the murder. Held: Affirmed. For the collateral estoppel doctrine to apply, appellant had to demonstrate that the issue whose relitigation he sought to foreclose was actually decided in the first proceeding. Appellant failed to meet this burden because his not guilty verdict on the first degree murder charge does not amount to a factual finding that he did not premeditate or deliberate the killing; it shows only that the jury had a reasonable doubt about his guilt. Further, the first degree murder issue was not relitigated because the jury in appellant’s second case was not instructed on first degree murder and was not permitted to consider appellant’s guilt of first degree murder. Instead, the jury was instructed on both express and implied malice second degree murder. Based on these instructions, the prosecution properly argued that appellant’s conduct before the stabbing was evidence that he acted with malice aforethought.

Stating that the analysis in a court’s opinion is “perfunctory” is disrespectful and impugns the integrity of the court. After appellant’s first trial, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court should not have instructed the jury that second degree murder is a general intent crime, but found the error harmless under Chapman, citing relevant U.S. Supreme Court and California cases. The federal district court’s opinion vacating appellant’s conviction stated that the Court of Appeal’s harmless error analysis was “perfunctory” and “objectively unreasonable.” In this appeal following appellant’s second trial, the Court of Appeal explained that the federal court’s use of the term perfunctory was, “at the very least, disrespectful, and raises the issue of integrity.” The appellate court was required to weigh the facts in its harmless error analysis but the federal court apparently gave no weight to this factual determination. Given the facts of the case, the implausibility of the defense theory—that the murder victim inflicted the fatal wound on himself by running into the knife—led the court to its original and terse harmless error analysis. Although short, the analysis was not perfunctory, which is defined as “done or acting routinely and with little interest or care.” The questioned harmless error analysis is typical in this Court of Appeal and the federal court’s decision leaves other similar analyses from the court vulnerable to collateral attack in federal court. The court also disagreed with the federal court’s conclusion that the harmless error analysis was objectively unreasonable.