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Name: People v. Wilkins
Case #: S190713
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 03/07/2013

In cases involving a single perpetrator, when the perpetrator leaves the scene of a felony and reaches a place of temporary safety before a killing occurs, the killing and the felony are not part of one continuous transaction for purposes of the felony-murder rule. Appellant was convicted of first degree murder under the felony-murder theory that the killing occurred in the commission of a burglary. Evidence presented at trial connected appellant to the Riverside County burglary of a house under construction, where newly purchased major appliances were stolen. Some sixty miles away from the house, and some time after the theft, appellant was driving a truck on the freeway in Orange County when one of the stolen items, a stove, fell off the truck. The victim died in a car crash after he swerved his vehicle to avoid the stove on the freeway. At trial, appellant requested a jury instruction on the “escape rule” (CALCRIM No. 3261). The trial court denied the request and the Court of Appeal found no error. The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. Under the felony murder rule, all murder which is committed in the perpetration of burglary is murder of the first degree. The prosecution must prove that the felony and the murder “were part of one continuous transaction.” Under the escape rule, a burglary continues until the defendant has reached a place of temporary safety; the rule establishes the outer limits of the continuous-transaction theory. Here, substantial evidence supported the escape rule instruction because a jury could have concluded that the fatal act occurred when the stove fell off the truck and that appellant had reached a place of temporary safety before this act occurred. The trial court’s instruction on the “continuous transaction” element (CALCRIM No. 549), in the absence of instruction on the escape rule, was incomplete and misleading. As a result, the jury was misinstructed on an element of the offense of first degree murder and the federal harmless error standard applied. The error in refusing to instruct on the escape rule was prejudicial under both the federal and the state standards. The court distinguished People v. Cavitt (2004) 33 Cal.4th 187, which addressed accomplice liability in connection with the felony-murder rule, not the liability of the actual killer.