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Name: People v. Sotelo-Urena
Case #: A144021
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 2
Opinion Date: 10/26/2016

Homeless man’s murder conviction reversed where trial court excluded expert evidence that the homeless experience heightened sensitivity to perceived threats of violence, which would have supported self-defense claims. Sotelo-Urena, a homeless man, stabbed Bloom to death. During police interviews, Sotelo-Urena claimed that Bloom had stabbed him on a previous occasion and that he thought Bloom was reaching for a knife to stab him again. He was convicted of first degree murder and appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion and denied him the right to present a complete defense by excluding as irrelevant and inappropriate expert testimony that homeless individuals experience higher incidents of victimization and violence than do non-homeless persons and for that reason may develop a heightened sensitivity to perceived threats of violence. Held: Reversed. Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make a fact of consequence more or less likely. (Evid. Code, § 210.) Because Sotelo-Urena’s defense was that he acted in either perfect or imperfect self-defense, the jury had to evaluate his subjective belief in the need to use lethal force. The relevance of the excluded expert testimony to that inquiry is “evident.” It would have explained Sotelo-Urena’s heightened sensitivity to aggression and why he was inclined to react more acutely to the perceived threat. The expert evidence on the homeless is similar to evidence of intimate partner battering, which has been held relevant to a defendant’s state of mind because it may lead to “hypervigilance” to cues of impending violence. (See People v. Aris (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1178.) Because the expert evidence on chronic homelessness and its psychological impacts was relevant to Sotelo-Urena’s state of mind as well as his credibility and is a matter that is sufficiently beyond the common experience, the trial court erred by excluding it. The error requires reversal under the prejudice test set forth in People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.3d 818.

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