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Name: People v. Wilkins
Case #: G040716
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 3
Opinion Date: 01/07/2011
Subsequent History: 5/11/11 rev. gr. (S190713)
Summary

Sufficient evidence supports the conviction for first degree murder under the felony-murder rule because the evidence was insufficient to prove appellant committed the burglary. Newly-purchased major appliances and other items stored at a Riverside County home that was being remodeled were stolen. Sixty miles away, in Orange County, appellant was driving on the freeway in a pick-up truck. The stolen items were unsecured in the bed of the truck. A stove fell off the truck into on-coming traffic, causing cars and trucks to swerve. A big rig overturned, trapping a vehicle between the two trailers, and killing the driver. Appellant was charged with, and convicted of, felony murder, with burglary being the underlying felony. The appellate court rejected appellant’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s determination that the property in appellant’s truck came from a burglary he committed. The court noted that appellant had worked at a construction site where the property was located prior to the burglary. His cell phone records placed him in the area when the items were delivered and again around the time of the burglary. He telephoned an acquaintance and told her he “got some big things for the kitchen.” There was an inference that he fled a burglary because he did not take the time to secure the stolen items in the bed of the tuck. This evidence was found to be more than sufficient to support the jury’s determination that he committed the burglary.
Liability under the felony murder rule is defined by the continuous-transaction doctrine, not the escape rule. The court also rejected appellant’s contention that the trial court erred in denying appellant’s request to instruct the jury as to the escape rule under CALCRIM No. 3261. The court instructed with CALCRIM No. 540C, which provides that the act causing death and the burglary be part of the same continuous transaction. Penal Code section 189 sets forth the felony-murder provision, providing that all murder which is committed in the perpetration of burglary is murder of the first degree. The purpose of the rule is to deter felons from accidentally or negligently killing in the commission of the felony. Felony murder does not require a causal relation between the felony and the killing. The only required nexus is that they are both part of the same transaction. (People v. Johnson (1992) 5 Cal.App.4th 552, 561.) The continuous-transaction doctrine defines the duration of felony murder liability, which may extend beyond the termination of the felony itself, provided the felony and the act resulting in death constitute a continuous transaction. For purposes of the rule, a burglary continues, at a minimum, until the perpetrator reaches a place of temporary safety; but reaching such a place does not, in and of itself, terminate felony murder liability so long as the felony and the killing are part of one continuous transaction. Here, the act causing the homicide, the failure to tie down the stolen property, occurred at the burglary, not when the property fell from the truck. Appellant was in flight from the burglary to the location where he would unload the property. As such, the burglary and homicide were part of a continuous transaction. The court provided the jury with the correct instruction.
The 25 years to life sentence did not result in cruel and unusual punishment. Appellant was and sentenced to prison for 25 years to life and he argued this was cruel and unusual punishment. The court affirmed. In determining whether the sentence under the felony-murder rule was grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment, the trial court correctly evaluated the defendant and his lengthy criminal record, as well as the crime, and determined that the punishment fit both the crime and defendant.