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The People v. Eric Christopher Houston

August 2, 2012


Court: Superior County: Napa Judge: W. Scott Snowden Super. Ct. No. CR 14311

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

Napa County

A jury convicted defendant Eric Christopher Houston of the first degree murders of Robert Brens, Judy Davis, Beamon Hill, and Jason White (Pen. Code, §§ 187, subd. (a), 189; further undesignated statutory references are to the Penal Code), and found true a multiple-murder special-circumstance allegation (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(3)). The jury also convicted defendant of the attempted murders of Wayne Boggess, Patricia Collazo, Danita Gipson, Donald Graham, Thomas Hinojosai, John Kaze, Sergio Martinez, Jose Rodriguez, Rachel Scarberry, and Mireya Yanez (§§ 187, subd. (a), 664); and found true allegations that the attempted murders were willful, deliberate, and premeditated (§ 664); that defendant personally used a firearm in committing the murders and attempted murders (§ 12022.5); and that, except as to Graham, defendant personally inflicted great bodily injury in committing the attempted murders (§ 12022.7). The jury further convicted defendant of assault with a firearm on Joshua Hendrickson, Bee Moua, and Tracy Young (§ 245, subd. (a)(2)), and false imprisonment for the purpose of protection from arrest (§ 210.5). After a sanity trial, the jury found defendant to be sane; after a penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss the special circumstance finding and the automatic motion to modify the penalty verdict (§ 190.4, subd. (e)), and sentenced him to death on the murder counts, life imprisonment on the attempted murder counts, and a determinate sentence on the remaining counts and enhancements.

Appeal to this court is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).) We affirm the judgment.

I. A. Guilt Phase

On May 1, 1992, while armed with a shotgun and a rifle, defendant entered the high school he had last attended in 1989, shot and killed four people, and wounded several others. Defendant then held approximately 80 to 90 students hostage for about eight hours before surrendering. Defendant attacked the school because one of his former teachers had given him a failing grade, which, according to defendant, caused him to not graduate and to lose his job, and also caused his girlfriend to leave him. At trial, defendant also accused this former teacher of having molested him.

1. Prosecution Evidence

In early 1992, defendant on several occasions told his best friend, David Rewerts, that he would like to go to Lindhurst High School and shoot a couple of people. Defendant read to Rewerts passages from a book on military tactics and police procedures. Defendant owned a shotgun, two .22-caliber semiautomatic rifles, and another firearm. Rewerts had gone target shooting with defendant. According to Rewerts, defendant could cock his pump-action shotgun with one arm.

Defendant lived with his mother and older half brother. On the morning of May 1, 1992, defendant waited outside his home for the mail carrier to deliver his unemployment check and left after the check arrived. Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., defendant went to three different stores looking for a specific type of shotgun ammunition, and he ultimately purchased No. 4 buckshot ammunition for a shotgun, .22-caliber ammunition, and an ammunition pouch. A clerk testified that defendant had a shopping list with him.

Although the precise sequence of the day's events is somewhat unclear, about 1:50 p.m., a teacher at Lindhurst High School saw someone, later identified as defendant, walking "with a determined stride" toward building C. Defendant wore a camouflage vest with pockets full of shotgun shells, two bandoliers full of ammunition, and a full ammunition belt. He carried a 12-gauge shotgun, had slung over his back a .22-caliber rifle with the butt sawed off, and wore a canteen on his belt. The teacher asked defendant if he had a permit for the shotgun he was carrying. He looked at her, did not respond, and continued walking toward the building.

Defendant entered building C, walked into classroom C-108, pointed his shotgun at Rachel Scarberry, a student, and shot her in the chest. Defendant then shot Robert Brens, a teacher, who ultimately died of chest wounds. Defendant walked towards Brens's fallen body, turned around, and shot student Judy Davis in the face and upper chest, killing her. Defendant then shot at Thomas Hinojosai, a student, as he dove away; the blast hit him in the ear and the shoulder. Tracy Young, a student, dove to the floor after defendant's first shot, but was hit in the foot by one of the shots.

Defendant left the classroom, continued down the hallway, and fired three times into classroom C-105, injuring three students: Jose Rodriguez was struck in the feet; Patricia Collazo was struck in the right knee; and Mireya Yanez was struck in the knees. Defendant then went to the doorway of classroom C-107 and shot and killed Jason White, a student. Defendant at some point passed by classroom C-109, saw student Sergio Martinez hiding in the corner, and shot at him. Martinez attempted to move away but was hit in the left arm.

At some point during the shootings, Joshua Hendrickson, a student in classroom C-204 on the second floor, heard the shots, left the classroom, looked over the railing, and saw defendant on the first floor. Defendant saw Hendrickson and shot at him. Hendrickson retreated into the classroom.

Around this time, Danita Gipson, a student in classroom C-110, heard the shots and left the classroom to investigate. John Kaze, a substitute teacher, followed her. Gipson walked down the hallway and saw defendant. Defendant saw Gipson and aimed at her. She attempted to run away but was shot in the buttocks. Gipson fell to the ground, got up, and then ran back to classroom C-110. Defendant walked toward Kaze with "a slight smile on his face and a spring to his step." Kaze attempted to return to classroom C-110, but before he could do so, defendant shot him in the face, shoulder, and neck. Kaze retreated into the classroom. Wayne Boggess, a student in classroom C-110, started to leave the classroom but failed to respond to a cry for everyone to get down and instead stood in the doorway as if "in a daze." Defendant shot Boggess in the face. Defendant then walked toward classroom C-102.

The teacher in classroom C-102 heard the shots, went to the hallway, and yelled to Donald Graham, the teacher in classroom C-101, "911. Man with a gun. Shots fired." Graham leaned out the doorway and asked the other teacher to repeat himself. Defendant shot at Graham and hit him in the forearm, and Graham retreated into classroom C-101. Defendant reloaded, went to classroom C-102, and made eye contact with a female student inside. Beamon Hill, another student in the classroom, yelled, "No," and pushed her to the floor. Defendant shot Hill in the head, killing him, and walked away.

At some point during the shootings, Bee Moua, a student in classroom C-104, tried to leave the room. As Moua was getting up from his desk, defendant fired two shots into the classroom from the hallway. Moua and the other students in the room dropped to the floor and stayed there.

Defendant headed up a stairway, entered classroom C-204, told the teacher to leave, and ordered the approximately 24 students to get to one side of the room. Defendant ordered the students to barricade the doorway with a bookshelf. At defendant's command, a student went to classroom C-104 and told the students in that room to join the others in classroom C-204, promising that if they did, defendant would not shoot them. They complied. Students hiding in the library and other classrooms were similarly ordered to classroom C-204. The teachers were ordered to leave the building. Eventually there were 80 to 90 students in classroom C-204. Defendant assigned four to six students to different positions in the building to act as lookouts.

Using the school's intercom system, defendant contacted law enforcement personnel and threatened to shoot people if the school bells were not turned off. Defendant told law enforcement personnel that Brens had flunked him and that he had been fired from his job because he did not have a high school diploma. Defendant made similar statements to the students in the room, saying Brens had "ruined his life" and he was going to make Brens "pay." Defendant also said his girlfriend had left him. Defendant blamed Brens and the school system, and wanted to "make a point" and ensure that other teachers did not repeat this mistake.

Defendant told the students he had previously reconnoitered the school. Defendant also said he had placed gasoline around the building and would ignite it if his plan did not work. Defendant told the students that he had studied police tactics as well as the Penal Code, so he was aware of the potential sentence he faced.

Defendant sent a student to retrieve a radio. Defendant appeared relieved when the radio newscast announced no one had been killed, but he appeared surprised when it reported that he had shot people. Defendant later admitted that he had shot Brens "in the ass," and then smiled. Defendant told the students he had not intended to kill anyone.

Defendant asked the students if they had to use the restroom, and many responded that they did. Defendant allowed the students to go downstairs to the restroom in pairs, threatening to kill everyone in the classroom if they did not return. The second pair of students sent to the restroom did not return. A third student was sent to look for the pair, but he did not return either.

Later in the afternoon, law enforcement personnel delivered to classroom C-204 a portable telephone system, which permitted them to monitor and record the sounds in the classroom even when the device was not in use. Law enforcement personnel recorded the hostage situation, and the jury later listened to the audiotapes.

At some point, defendant demanded that law enforcement personnel deliver a key to the faculty restroom, which could be seen from the classroom, and threatened to kill people if it was not delivered in a timely manner. Defendant later fired a warning shot, shattering a library window. After law enforcement personnel delivered the key, defendant allowed the students to go to the faculty restroom in pairs, again threatening to kill everyone in the classroom if they did not return. Two pairs of students who left to use the restroom did not return.

Hendrickson told defendant that he was not feeling well and was allowed to leave. Defendant also released a student who was crying hysterically and another who claimed to be pregnant. A short while later, defendant released 10 to 15 more hostages as a sign of good faith. At law enforcement personnel's request, the remaining students wrote their names and telephone numbers on a piece of paper so that their parents could be informed. As the students became hungry, defendant released 15 to 30 hostages in exchange for pizza, soda, and some ibuprofen for the students complaining of headaches.

Defendant asked law enforcement personnel about the condition of the people he had shot. They lied and said no one had been killed. Defendant inquired whether he could receive a light sentence and sought assurances that they would not "double-cross him." At defendant's insistence, law enforcement personnel sent him a purported contract guaranteeing that he would serve no more than five years in a minimum security facility that had education and employment opportunities. Representatives of the Yuba City Police Department and Yuba County Sheriff's Department had signed the document. Sixteen of the hostages also signed the document as witnesses.

Defendant eventually released the remaining students, with the final group leaving at about 10 p.m. Defendant then left his weapons, ammunition, and a pair of thumb cuffs in the classroom, left the building, and was taken into custody.

At some point during the hostage situation, law enforcement personnel obtained consent from defendant's mother to search defendant's bedroom in her house and recovered a handwritten supply list, which included quantities of ammunition, lighter fluid, and a rifle sling. They also recovered empty ammunition boxes, including boxes for No. 4 buckshot for a shotgun and a handwritten note addressed "to my family," which read in part, "I know parenting had nothing to do with what [happens] today. It [seems] my sanity has slipped away and evil [took its] place. The mistakes the loneliness and the failure have built up [too] high. Also I just want to say I love my family very very much." Officers, pursuant to a search warrant, later recovered additional papers, including one captioned "Mission Profile" consisting of a hand-drawn diagram of building C. Officers recovered pieces of a torn-up sheet of paper, on which had been handwritten in part, "What I did today at the school . . . . [¶] [I've] been [fascinated] with weapons and death . . . . [S]et on killing. [¶] My [hatred toward] humanity forced me . . . what I did." Officers also found two magazines that focused on law enforcement weapons and tactics and a copy of an abridged version of the Penal Code. Police recovered the sawed-off butt of defendant's .22-caliber rifle.

Defendant's vehicle was discovered parked directly in front of building C. Inside the vehicle was a book entitled Modern Law Enforcement Weapons and Tactics. Text in portions of the book concerning lethal shotgun ammunition had been circled or underlined, and the first page of a chapter entitled Special Weapons and Tactics had been turned down.

Defendant submitted to a videotaped interrogation, which the jury later watched. After being advised of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436 and waiving them, defendant said he did not decide to commit the shootings until the teacher asked him about having a gun permit. Defendant acknowledged he had created a shopping list and drawn up plans, but claimed he did not intend to go through with them. Defendant also admitted he had visited the school a few weeks before and had sawed off the butt of the .22-caliber rifle before the shootings to make it more maneuverable. Defendant said he intended to "wing[] a couple of people" to get the media's attention, but not to kill anyone. Defendant insisted he used No. 4 buckshot, rather than less lethal ammunition, because that was what he used when he went target shooting. Defendant described the assault and said that once he went upstairs he realized what he was doing was wrong.

Autopsies revealed Brens, Davis, Hill, and White were all killed by multiple shots of No. 4 buckshot that caused extensive external and internal injuries. A sheriff's deputy testified that No. 4 buckshot contained approximately 24 projectiles per shell and described them as "[antipersonnel] type rounds" with "devastating" impact power. The diameter of the spread of multiprojectile ammunition fired from a shotgun expanded approximately one inch for every yard traveled.

2. Defense Evidence

Defendant called as witnesses four of the students whom he had taken hostage. They testified that defendant had said he did not know he had killed anyone, was not "aiming to kill anybody," and did not want any of the injured students to die. Defendant expressed shock at his actions and apologized to the final four hostages.

Defendant's half brother, Ronald Caddell, testified about their experiences together. Caddell explained defendant had been fascinated with military equipment and firearms since the age of 12 or 13. Defendant often practiced shooting, and they had gone target shooting together two or three times. Defendant worked for a temporary agency that had a contract with Hewlett-Packard, but his contract had expired a few months before the shootings. Defendant could have obtained a job at Hewlett-Packard if he had had a high school diploma or equivalency certificate. Caddell had argued with defendant about his not looking for work. In the weeks leading up to the shootings, defendant ate little, stayed up late, and was heard handling his firearms. Caddell and defendant were fans of action movies, especially The Terminator (Hemdale Film Corp., 1984).

C. Jess Groesbeck, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis Medical School (UC Davis Medical School) who was board certified in psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and forensic psychiatry, evaluated defendant. Dr. Groesbeck reviewed the police reports, other doctors' reports, and defendant's medical and school records. He also interviewed defendant on different occasions. In his testimony, Dr. Groesbeck described several traumatic events in defendant's family: His mother had been abused by several family members; a maternal uncle had killed three people in a fight; his maternal grandmother had committed suicide; and his father, who was an alcoholic, had abandoned the family when defendant was a young child. According to Dr. Groesbeck, defendant suffered from spinal meningitis and severe asthma as an infant. As a child, defendant had problems learning in school, paying attention, and controlling his behavior; he had been classified as "learning handicapped." Defendant's IQ had dropped from 95 to 84 around the age of 16. Defendant had twice attempted to commit suicide, once in 1988 and once while in custody awaiting trial.

Dr. Groesbeck noted defendant felt guilty about "quasi-homosexual seeking behavior" he had with Rewerts, his best friend. As a young child, defendant had been photographed wearing a dress, which, in Dr. Groesbeck's opinion, contributed to defendant's sexual identity confusion and caused his fascination with firearms. Dr. Groesbeck related defendant's claim that Brens, the teacher he shot and killed, had molested him at least twice in 1989.

Dr. Groesbeck diagnosed defendant as suffering from "organic brain syndrome," that is, chronic, permanent brain damage. According to Dr. Groesbeck, defendant also suffered from "a developmental disorder, as well as a hyperactivity syndrome, which he had as a child, most likely." Dr. Groesbeck also diagnosed defendant as suffering from dependent personality disorder, as well as borderline personality disorder, manifested by extreme mood swings, and suggested that defendant's contact with reality was unstable. Dr. Groesbeck further diagnosed defendant as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which could have been caused by having been molested. Dr. Groesbeck suggested defendant had a dissociative reaction to the shootings and screened out the memories or did not see himself as involved in what happened.

In Dr. Groesbeck's opinion, defendant also suffered from psychotic schizophreniform disorder, "the most serious of all mental illnesses," in which the mind "literally disorganizes at all levels." During the shootings, Dr. Groesbeck believed defendant was "dissociated, [detached], living in an unreal world," and identifying with the self-sacrificing protagonists in his favorite action movies. Dr. Groesbeck characterized defendant's preshooting writings as examples of his internal struggles overwhelming his ability to maintain contact with reality.

Helaine Rubinstein, Dr. Groesbeck's associate and a psychologist who specialized in neuropsychology and diagnosing and treating mental disorders of youth, also evaluated defendant. Dr. Rubinstein reviewed police reports, defendant's medical and school records, some of his writings, interviews of his mother and brother, his interrogation by the police, and the audiotapes of the hostage situation. She also spent about 50 hours interviewing him and administering tests. Dr. Rubinstein found defendant to be significantly disoriented, dissociative, delusional, and suffering from auditory and visual hallucinations.

Dr. Rubinstein diagnosed defendant as suffering from "Specific Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, Chronic," specifically, brain damage on the left hemisphere that impaired his ability to understand orally conveyed information. Such a disorder could be the result of physical abuse or a childhood illness such as spinal meningitis. Dr. Rubinstein also diagnosed defendant as suffering from "Attention Deficits, Hyperactivity Disorder, Residual Phase," that is, childhood hyperactivity marked by an inability to concentrate. Dr. Rubinstein agreed with Dr. Groesbeck that defendant suffered from PTSD, which she opined was caused by his claimed molestation, and explained that his inability to recall certain facts of the shootings was consistent with PTSD. Like Dr. Groesbeck, Dr. Rubinstein diagnosed defendant as suffering from a paranoid type of a schizophreniform disorder. In Dr. Rubinstein's opinion, the onset of defendant's disorder occurred approximately a month before the shootings and had escalated since then.

Dr. Rubinstein also detected that defendant had a "Savior Syndrome," which is a delusion of grandeur involving the belief that he was a special servant of a higher power. Defendant had told Dr. Rubinstein that he intended to take Brens hostage and disclose all the wrongdoings of the school system.

Defendant's friend, Ricardo Borom, testified that in 1989, defendant had told him that he had permitted a high school teacher named Robert to fondle him and then orally copulate him in exchange for a passing grade.

3. Prosecution Rebuttal Evidence

Rewerts, defendant's best friend, admitted that they had had sexual contact once in 1991. Rewerts and defendant were very close and discussed sexual matters, but defendant never told Rewerts about Brens's claimed acts of molestation. On cross-examination, Rewerts admitted defendant and he at one point had had a falling out because defendant had started to date an ex-girlfriend of Rewerts's, and Rewerts wanted to have an exclusive sexual relationship with defendant.

Lindhurst High School's records indicated that during his senior year (1988-1989) defendant had taken two classes taught by Brens: civics and economics. Defendant passed civics but failed economics. Following his senior year, defendant attended a summer school session for nongraduating seniors and again failed economics; Brens did not teach the summer school class.

B. Sanity Trial 1. Defense Evidence

Dr. Groesbeck reviewed his notes from his interviews of defendant, defendant's interrogation by the police, another doctor's report, and a number of other documents, and interviewed defendant two more times. Dr. Groesbeck reaffirmed his opinion that defendant suffered from permanent brain damage, a developmental disorder, hyperactivity syndrome, dependent personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and psychotic schizophreniform disorder. According to Dr. Groesbeck, testing indicated that defendant was detached and suffered from diminished ability to abstract, conflicted feelings, and poor impulse control. He also suffered from hallucinations that would command him to do unrealistic things. Dr. Groesbeck said his diagnosis would have remained the same even assuming defendant had fabricated the molestation allegations. Although defendant had told the hostages that Brens had flunked him, Dr. Groesbeck thought defendant's failure to also mention the molestations to them did not indicate that he had made up the allegations.

In Dr. Groesbeck's opinion, defendant was aware of the nature and quality of his acts during the shootings, and his awareness grew during the hostage situation. Dr. Groesbeck testified, however, that defendant was in a dissociated, depersonalized state and was not capable of distinguishing right from wrong.

2. Prosecution Evidence

Captane Thomson, a clinical professor at UC Davis Medical School who is board certified in psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, also interviewed defendant. After reviewing Dr. Groesbeck's and Dr. Rubinstein's testimony, defendant's medical and school reports, and interviews of defendant's family members, Dr. Thomson disagreed that defendant suffered from schizophreniform psychosis. He believed defendant's symptoms were indicative of a mood disorder such as psychotic depression.

In Dr. Thomson's opinion, at the time of the crimes, defendant understood the nature and quality of his acts, and knew what he did was legally and morally wrong. Dr. Thomson explained that even a psychotic person may understand the nature and quality of his or her actions. Dr. Thomson believed defendant's preshooting writings were evidence that he was planning to do something he knew was both legally and morally wrong.

Charles Schaffer, a board-certified psychiatrist and former professor at UC Davis Medical School, interviewed defendant and reviewed the police reports and materials, interviews of witnesses, defendant's psychiatric and medical records, and his psychological test results. He diagnosed defendant as suffering from major depression with psychotic features and possibly bipolar disorder. Dr. Schaffer believed defendant also probably suffered from an unspecified personality disorder. Dr. Schaffer noted defendant showed symptoms of PTSD and possible caffeine intoxication on the day of the shootings based upon defendant's claim that he had taken eight or nine caffeine pills and drunk four or five cups of coffee before the shootings. In Dr. Schaffer's opinion, during the shootings defendant was capable of understanding the nature and quality of his acts and could distinguish right from wrong. Dr. Schaffer did not diagnose defendant as suffering from a schizophrenic disorder, but even assuming that diagnosis was correct, Dr. Schaffer said it would not alter his opinion that defendant understood the nature and quality of his acts and was able to distinguish right from wrong.

C. Penalty Phase 1. Prosecution Evidence

The prosecutor introduced into evidence seven photographs taken during the four autopsies. The jury also viewed a videotape, played without sound but narrated by a detective, that depicted the crime scene; it included images of the four dead bodies.

2. Defense Evidence

During the penalty phase, defendant's mother testified about his difficult upbringing. His former supervisor testified about his excellent work habits. Defendant testified about the shootings and his relationship with Brens, the teacher he killed.

Defendant's mother, Edith Houston, testified about his physical illnesses as a child, the breakup of her marriage, his social and mental problems, and his difficulties in school. Defendant had an older sister as well as an older half brother, Caddell, from Edith's prior marriage. As a child, defendant suffered from encephalitis or meningitis and severe pneumonia, which delayed his development. Defendant's father drank and was unfaithful, and he and Edith fought. When defendant was a year old, his father left and thereafter visited only infrequently. Edith had suicidal thoughts.

Defendant did not do well in school. Defendant's elementary school classified him as a "slow learner" and placed him in special classes. Defendant continued in special education classes during junior high and high school.

During high school, Edith had difficulty controlling defendant, so she sent him to live with his father and stepmother in Arkansas. Defendant soon begged to return, claiming his father was very strict with him and was drinking and "into a lot of heavy drugs."

During high school, defendant attempted to commit suicide. But he also talked other students out of committing suicide.

After leaving high school, defendant attempted to work. Donna Mickel, defendant's supervisor at Hewlett-Packard, testified she considered defendant an ideal employee whom she wanted to hire after his contract had expired. According to Edith, defendant started to change after his contract at Hewlett-Packard ended. He spent much of his time alone; he was depressed and quick to start an argument.

Defendant drank some and had tried marijuana, and Edith thought he had tried other drugs. Defendant had no prior trouble with law enforcement.

Edith described defendant as shy, not comfortable in groups of people, and more comfortable with children than with people his own age. Other than perhaps occasionally hitting his sister, defendant was not violent and did not pick on other people.

Edith loved defendant and wanted him to live. Defendant was artistic, and Edith believed he could contribute to society by creating works of art. Defendant expressed to Edith remorse for the problems he had caused his family.

Defendant testified about his childhood and upbringing. In particular, he testified that during the second semester of his junior year, Brens was his United States history teacher. His relationship with Brens was "pretty good," but they did get into some arguments. Defendant said Brens sometimes had "snotty attitudes" but was "pretty professional" and a "good teacher."

In his senior year, defendant took Brens's economics class. According to defendant, there were some out-of-control students who agitated Brens, who in turn took out his frustrations on the rest of the class. In December or January of his senior year, defendant went to talk to Brens about a paper for the class. While they were alone, defendant claimed, Brens rubbed his hands on the crotch of defendant's pants. Defendant did not report the incident. After that, defendant and Brens had some arguments. Toward the end of the school year, defendant again went to talk to Brens about a paper. Defendant claimed that while he and Brens were alone in the classroom, Brens reached into his pants, grabbed his penis, and twisted it, causing excruciating pain.

Defendant said he felt unable to report these incidents, and he believed that if he had done so, Brens would not have gotten in trouble. Although Borom, defendant's friend, testified that defendant told him that a teacher named Robert had orally copulated him, defendant could not recall either the incident or telling Borom about it because, he said, he was intoxicated while talking to Borom.

After these incidents, Brens rebuffed defendant's attempt to discuss his failing grade. Brens failed defendant, and he did not graduate. Defendant attempted to retake the class during summer school but said he ...

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