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People v. Butler

August 24, 2010


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Diego County, Leo Valentine, Jr., Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. SCD202485).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Haller, J.


Stephon Butler appeals from a judgment convicting him of involuntary manslaughter. He asserts there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that his conduct caused the victim's death, and the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on criminal negligence. We reject these contentions and affirm the judgment.


The charges against defendant arose from an incident during which he and other individuals beat, tied up, suffocated and provided cocaine to the victim. Based on defendant's participation, he was charged with various offenses, including first degree felony murder, second degree murder, and false imprisonment by violence or menace. With respect to the homicide allegations, the jury was instructed on murder and on involuntary manslaughter as a lesser offense. The jury was also instructed that the predicate offenses underlying the involuntary manslaughter charge were furnishing cocaine, battery, and false imprisonment by violence or menace. The jury rejected the murder charges, was unable to reach a verdict on the false imprisonment allegation, and found defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Defendant's contentions on appeal concern solely the propriety of the involuntary manslaughter verdict. First, he raises numerous arguments challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's causation finding. Because the evidence supports the conclusion that defendant committed acts that substantially and foreseeably contributed to the victim's death, these contentions fail.

Second, defendant asserts the jury should have been instructed on principles of criminal negligence. For reasons we shall explain, the instructions given by the trial court adequately informed the jury of the criminal negligence standard applicable to the mens rea required for involuntary manslaughter, and there was no instructional error.


On or about December 27, 2003, the victim (Steve Mathis) died in an apartment frequented by drug users. Shortly before Mathis's death, defendant was at the apartment, along with Alton Finley, James Washington, Dashawn Davis, Catherine Jacobs, and Tara Rhoades. Three of these individuals (Davis, Jacobs, and Rhoades) testified about the events that led to Mathis's death. According to these witnesses, while the group was at the apartment using cocaine, a dispute broke out between Mathis and several others, including defendant. The witnesses described Mathis being hit repeatedly, tied up, and silenced with a sock placed in his mouth. The jury found defendant participated in some of this conduct.

Davis testified that on the day of the homicide she arrived at the apartment and recognized Mathis as the person who had recently assaulted her at knifepoint. Mathis approached her to try "to be a peacemaker," but Davis hit him in the chest and pushed him away because she did not want "to hear it." Davis then provided cocaine for the people in the apartment to smoke. Shortly thereafter, defendant, Finley, and Washington started arguing with Mathis about money owed by Mathis. When Mathis started yelling in response, defendant punched Mathis in the mouth. The men calmed down and smoked more cocaine.

Mathis then tried to leave by running for the door, but Finley tackled Mathis to the floor. Defendant stripped Mathis of his clothes. Mathis tried to leave by going to the window, but defendant and Washington stopped him. Defendant and Washington took turns hitting Mathis "really hard" on his head, with defendant inflicting about four blows. Mathis was loudly screaming, " 'Stop, stop, stop.' "

Davis testified that Mathis started acting "all wild," and in response defendant said, " 'Tie him up.' " Defendant held Mathis face down on the floor and placed his knee on Mathis's back. Davis helped tie Mathis's feet and someone else tied his hands.*fn1 Mathis continued yelling, and to make him stop defendant turned Mathis's head and placed a sock in his mouth. Mathis lay tied up and face down on the floor with the sock in his mouth for about 10 or 15 minutes.

Rhoades and Jacobs witnessed portions of the altercation.*fn2 Rhoades testified that Davis punched Mathis in the face, and defendant grabbed and pushed Mathis to stop him from leaving out the door. Finley tripped Mathis before Mathis could reach the door, causing Mathis to fall to the floor. Mathis tried to leave through the window, but was blocked from doing so by defendant and others. They took off Mathis's clothes so he could not leave. Mathis was saying, " 'help.' " Defendant continued to grab and push Mathis. The fighting would stop and then start again, and at some point defendant gave Mathis more cocaine. Defendant held Mathis's hands over his head, and someone (possibly Davis) tied his feet.

Jacobs testified that defendant and Davis pushed Mathis and took Mathis's jacket and other items. Mathis "freaked out" and ran over to the television and pulled it off the stand by its cord. Defendant and Davis grabbed Mathis, and defendant restrained Mathis. Davis hit Mathis in the face. "[E]veryone" was then "roughing" up Mathis.*fn3

At some point after Mathis was tied up defendant apparently noticed that Mathis had stopped breathing. Defendant tried to revive Mathis by hitting his chest, but Mathis did not move. Panicked, everyone left the apartment.

On December 29, 2003, a security officer at the apartment complex received a tip about a possible dead body at the apartment, and the police were summoned. At the apartment, the authorities observed that Mathis's wrists and ankles were bound. Medical examiner Dr. Steven Campman testified that Mathis had suffered multiple blunt force injuries, including scrapes and bruises around his face, neck, collar bone, shoulders, chest, hip, arms, legs, and back. He had petechial hemorrhages on the conjunctiva of one eye and the skin around both eyes and he had injuries to the inside of his lips, which could suggest asphyxiation by his mouth being held closed. Underneath Mathis's body, the authorities found a washcloth and shirt with "blood dilute" on them. Based on the observation of bleeding inside Mathis's mouth, Dr. Campman testified these items could have been placed around Mathis's mouth to contribute to the asphyxiation.*fn4 Mathis also had bleeding around the brain associated with blunt force injury to the head. He tested positive for cocaine.

Dr. Campman testified that Mathis died from a combination of blunt force head injuries, restraint, asphyxiation, and acute cocaine toxicity. Dr. Campman explained that restraint, especially with the arms behind the back, can inhibit respiration, and restraint can contribute to death when it occurs in the context of an assault that causes an abnormal heartbeat. Asphyxiation occurs when a person is not able to get enough oxygen; the petechial hemorrhages, lip injuries, restraint, and blunt force ...

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