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The People v. Ahkin Ramond Mills

October 18, 2012

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
AHKIN RAMOND MILLS, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Alameda County Ct.App. 1/2 A125969 Super. Ct. No. C154217 Judge: Larry J. Goodman

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

"When a defendant pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, and also joins with it another plea or pleas, the defendant shall first be tried as if only such other plea or pleas had been entered, and in that trial the defendant shall be conclusively presumed to have been sane at the time the offense is alleged to have been committed." (Pen. Code, § 1026, subd. (a).)*fn1 In this case defendant was charged with murder, pled not guilty, and also raised an insanity defense. At the guilt phase trial, the prosecutor requested a jury instruction that defendant was conclusively presumed to have been sane at the time of the offense. Defendant objected that the instruction might lead the jury to disregard the evidence of his mental illness and its effect on the intent required for murder. The court overruled the objection, gave the instruction on the presumption of sanity, and refused defendant's request for an instruction on the legal definition of sanity.

The jury convicted defendant of first degree murder. In the subsequent sanity trial it found that he was sane at the time of the offense. The court sentenced him to a term of 50 years to life in prison. On appeal below, defendant contended the guilt phase instruction on the conclusive presumption of sanity was improper because (1) it told the jury to presume the existence of a mental state critical to the state's burden of proof, violating due process, and (2) it had no application to any issue before the jury, violating state law. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.

We conclude that although defendant establishes no due process violation, the instruction was erroneous under state law. The question of a defendant's sanity is entirely irrelevant at the guilt phase of a bifurcated trial under section 1026. Therefore, no instruction on the subject should be given. However, the error was harmless in this case.

I. BACKGROUND

Shortly before 5:00 on the afternoon of April 21, 2005, Jason Jackson-Andrade entered the Amtrak station in Emeryville. Eyewitness testimony established the ensuing events. As Jackson-Andrade sat on a bench on the platform, defendant approached him and launched a tirade of insults. He told Jackson-Andrade, "You ain't getting on that train." Jackson-Andrade went into the station, sat down, and asked a woman if she knew the man outside. She said she did not. Jackson-Andrade told her he had not done anything, but the man was "cussing" at him and acting as though he wanted to kill him.

Defendant walked around on the platform for several minutes, bouncing on his toes, humming, and talking to himself. He then began walking toward the station in a determined manner, saying, "You got a gun, nigger? You got a gun? You got a gun?" He entered the station, approached Jackson-Andrade, and twice said, "Motherfucker, you want to kill me?" He also asked, "You got a gun?" As Jackson-Andrade looked up at him, defendant said, "Well, if you ain't got no motherfucking gun, I do," and produced a revolver from his pocket. Defendant shot Jackson-Andrade, who held up his hands and said, "Please, don't shoot me again, don't shoot." Jackson-Andrade fell from his seat and began crawling away. Defendant shot him five more times in the back and once in the back of the thigh.

When the police arrived, defendant lay on the ground, sliding his gun forward and assuming a prone position. He told them he was the only shooter. Jackson-Andrade died at the scene.

Defendant testified in his own defense. He claimed that because of death threats from various individuals, he and his wife had left their home in Merced to live with his cousin Telitha in Rodeo. He had been visiting another cousin in Sacramento in the days before the murder. As he walked around Sacramento, he began to suspect that he was being followed. On the morning of the murder, he stole a car at gunpoint and drove from Sacramento to Rodeo. He had Telitha take him to the Amtrak station because he did not want the people following him to find her or his wife. As he approached the station, he heard someone say, "You're going to feel it today," which he took to mean that he was going to be shot.

On the platform, defendant became suspicious of two men, one of whom looked at him and said into his cell phone, "He looks scared." Defendant claimed that after these men left, Jackson-Andrade beckoned to him. As defendant approached, Jackson-Andrade became angry and threatened to kill him. Jackson-Andrade then got up and went into the station, pausing at the door to make a hand gesture indicating that he had a gun. Defendant was nervous, and had to go to the bathroom, so he entered the station. When he saw Jackson-Andrade sitting inside talking to a lady, defendant "jumped" and the contents of his backpack spilled onto the floor. Jackson-Andrade got up and put his hand into his pocket. Defendant thought he was reaching for a gun, so he shot him. As Jackson-Andrade lay on the ground, defendant again thought he was reaching for a weapon, so defendant shot him again. Defendant testified that he shot only twice, but on cross-examination admitted he had reloaded his gun and continued firing.

Defendant's wife and cousin testified that he told them people were after him. His wife said he thought radio commercials were speaking to him, that the FBI was in a FedEx truck, and that cars were following him. A psychologist testified for the defense. After interviewing defendant, reviewing the police reports and witness statements, and giving defendant several psychological tests, he concluded that in April 2005 defendant suffered from a delusional disorder in the paranoid spectrum. The expert carefully focused his testimony. In his opinion, defendant did not suffer from a severe mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disease, nor were his delusions utterly beyond the realm of possibility. They concerned events that might actually happen, but defendant's belief in them was a function of his paranoid personality style. He tended to be hypervigilant, interpreting events in a personalized and threatening way. Stress exacerbated his symptoms.

The theory of the defense was good faith but unreasonable self-defense, also known as "imperfect" self-defense. (See People v. Blakeley (2000) 23 Cal.4th 82, 87-88; In re Christian S. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 768, 773.) Defense counsel urged the jury to find defendant guilty only of manslaughter, because he actually but unreasonably believed the victim posed an imminent threat when he shot him. However, counsel also argued that defendant's fear was not purely delusional. Noting the jury would be instructed that the fear giving rise to unreasonable self-defense may not derive from delusion alone, counsel contended defendant's fears were based on actual facts and experiences that he misinterpreted due to his paranoia.

The prosecutor requested a special instruction based on section 1026: "For purposes of reaching your verdict during this guilt phase of the proceedings, the defendant is conclusively presumed to have been sane at the time of the offense." Defendant filed a written objection, arguing that "giving this instruction would violate Defendant's rights to due process and a fair trial because it might tend to confuse the jury and would have the effect of lower[ing] the prosecution's burden of proving intent. . . . Specifically, the Defense submits this instruction might be mis-interpreted by the jury as directing them to disregard Defendant's evidence regarding mental illness, and that the jury may mis-interpret this instruction as directing them to presume a mental condition which has not been adequately defined or distinguished from Defendant's evidence regarding mental illness." If the instruction were to be given, defendant asked the court to instruct the jury on the legal definition of insanity, and advise it that "The presumption of sanity does not mean you are to disregard evidence of mental illness. You may consider such evidence as directed by other instructions I have given you."

The court gave the special instruction on the presumption of sanity, immediately following an instruction on unreasonable self-defense. It refused to give defendant's proposed additional language, stating: "I don't want to get into what the definition of sanity is in this phase of the proceedings and I don't think that you can be wrong by correctly stating the law."

Defendant raised a number of claims in the Court of Appeal under both state and federal law, including challenges to these instructional rulings. The court rejected his federal due process claim, and did not address his state law arguments. The court noted that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found due process violations in similar cases, and acknowledged that the reasoning of these opinions was "not obviously flawed." (See Stark v. Hickman (9th Cir. 2006) 455 F.3d 1070, 1076 (Stark); Patterson v. Gomez (9th Cir. 2000) 223 F.3d 959, 966-967 (Patterson).) Nevertheless, the court concluded that the Ninth Circuit's rationale had been "fatally undermine[d]" by Clark v. Arizona (2006) 548 U.S. 735 (Clark). We granted defendant's petition for review, limiting the scope of our review to the propriety of the court's instruction on the conclusive presumption of sanity.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Evidentiary Consequences of the Presumption of Sanity

Section 1026 has provided for a bifurcated trial on the issue of insanity, and a conclusive presumption of sanity at the initial guilt phase, since 1927. (Stats. 1927, ch. 677, § 4, p. 1149.)*fn2 In People v. Troche (1928) 206 Cal. 35 (Troche), this court established a rule that "all evidence tending to show the mental condition of the defendant at the time of the commission of the offense" was inadmissible at the guilt phase. (Id. at p. 46; accord, e.g., People v. Coleman (1942) 20 Cal.2d 399, 406; People v. French (1939) 12 Cal.2d 720, 737.)

The strict rule of inadmissibility was moderated in People v. Wells (1949) 33 Cal.2d 330 (Wells). Wells was a prison inmate accused of assault with malice aforethought under section 4500.*fn3 He argued that evidence of his mental state, relevant to the issue of malice, was improperly excluded from his trial. (Wells, at pp. 343-345.) Because Wells did not plead insanity, the applicable presumption of sanity was that provided in section 1016, which governs in the ordinary case. (See fn. 2, ante.) Nevertheless, the Wells court found it useful to address how the presumption operates in bifurcated proceedings under section 1026, and necessary to disapprove some language in earlier opinions applying section 1026.

The court reasoned that while sanity is conclusively presumed at the guilt phase of a bifurcated trial, the mens rea element of a crime is not presumed, conclusively or otherwise. "Whenever a particular mental state, such as a specific intent, is by statute made an essential element of a crime, that specific state must be proved like any other fact. [Citations.]" (Wells, supra, 33 Cal.2d at p. 350.) Therefore, competent evidence that the defendant did or did not possess the required mental state is admissible, whereas evidence tending to show legal sanity or insanity is not. (Id. at p. 351.) "[I]f the proffered evidence tends to show not merely that he did or did not, but rather that because of legal insanity he could not, entertain the . . . essential mental state, then that evidence is inadmissible under the not guilty plea and is admissible only on the trial on the plea of not ...


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