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The People v. Reginald Wyatt

November 5, 2012

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
REGINALD WYATT, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Alameda County Ct.App. 1/2 A114612 Super. Ct. No. C147107

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

While in defendant's care, defendant's young son died of shock and hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma. A jury convicted defendant of involuntary manslaughter (Pen. Code,*fn1 § 192, subd. (b)) and assault on a child causing death (§ 273ab). As relevant here, the Court of Appeal reversed the section 273ab conviction upon finding the trial court erroneously failed to instruct the jury, sua sponte, on simple assault as a lesser included offense. We conclude there was no error. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand with directions to reinstate the conviction.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In May 2003, defendant Reginald Wyatt was living with Tiffany Blake and their infant daughter, Valerie. Defendant also had a 14-month-old son, Reginald Wyatt, Jr. (Reginald), from a previous relationship. On the morning of May 18, 2003, Reginald stopped breathing while in defendant's care. He was rushed to the hospital, but could not be revived. Although the treating doctor saw no signs of significant injury on the body, the autopsy disclosed that Reginald died of shock and hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen.

An information was filed charging defendant with one count of murder (§ 187, subd. (a)) and one count of assault on a child causing death (§ 273ab).*fn2

As explained in detail, post, the evidence at trial included medical evidence concerning Reginald's injuries, defendant's tape-recorded statements and trial testimony, and testimony from Tiffany Blake and Reginald's mother. After the defense rested, the court granted a judgment of acquittal as to the murder count. (§ 1118.1.) The jury convicted defendant of involuntary manslaughter (§ 192, subd. (b)) and child assault homicide (§ 273ab).

In 2008, the Court of Appeal reversed the section 273ab conviction. Because the evidence did not show that defendant had " 'actual knowledge' he was 'wrestling far too hard with his young son,' " the court deemed the evidence insufficient to prove the requisite mens rea for the crime. (Wyatt I, supra, 48 Cal.4th at p. 779.) On review of the matter, we explained that under People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779 (Williams), "a defendant may commit an assault without realizing he is harming the victim, but the prosecution must prove the defendant was aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that a battery would directly, naturally, and probably result from the defendant's conduct." (Wyatt I, at p. 779.) Applying the Williams standard, we found substantial evidence establishing "that defendant knew he was striking his young son with his fist, forearm, knee, and elbow, and that he used an amount of force a reasonable person would realize was likely to result in great bodily injury." (Ibid.) Accordingly, we reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded for further proceedings.

The Court of Appeal again reversed the section 273ab conviction, this time concluding the trial court should have instructed the jury, sua sponte, on simple assault as a lesser included offense.

We granted the People's petition for review.

DISCUSSION

The Court of Appeal relied on People v. Basuta (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 370 for the proposition that simple assault (§ 240) is a lesser included offense of child assault homicide (§ 273ab). The People do not contest this holding, so we proceed to the inquiry at hand. Given the evidence at trial, did the trial court prejudicially err in failing to instruct the jury sua sponte on simple assault?

The legal principles governing our analysis are settled. "In criminal cases, even absent a request, a trial court must instruct on the general principles of law relevant to the issues the evidence raises. [Citation.] ' "That obligation has been held to include giving instructions on lesser included offenses when the evidence raises a question as to whether all of the elements of the charged offense were present [citation], but not when there is no evidence that the offense was less than that charged. [Citations.]" ' [Citation.] '[T]he existence of "any evidence, no matter how weak" will not justify instructions on a lesser included offense, but such instructions are required whenever evidence that the defendant is guilty only of the lesser offense is "substantial enough to merit consideration" by the jury. [Citations.]' " (People v. Taylor (2010) 48 Cal.4th 574, 623; see People v. Thomas (2012) 53 Cal.4th 771, 813; People v. Huggins (2006) 38 Cal.4th 175, 215.) In this regard, the testimony of a single witness, including that of a defendant, may suffice to require lesser included offense instructions. (People v. Lewis (2001) 25 Cal.4th 610, 646.) Courts must assess sufficiency of the evidence without evaluating the credibility of witnesses, for that is a task reserved for the jury. (People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal.4th 142, 162.) The failure to instruct on a lesser included offense in a non-capital case does not require reversal "unless an examination of the entire record establishes a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome." (Breverman, at p. 165; see Thomas, at p. 814.)

We begin with a summary of the prosecution's evidence.*fn3 At the time of the crimes, Reginald was 14 months old, stood 31 inches tall, and weighed 26 pounds. (Wyatt I, supra, 48 Cal.4th at pp. 782, 783.) After the autopsy, defendant waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436 and gave the following statements to investigators in a tape-recorded interview. On the morning of May 18, 2003, defendant got up and started wrestling and playing with Reginald, who was staying with him and his girlfriend Tiffany Blake for the weekend. Defendant picked Reginald up and threw him on the bed, and "chopped" his back with both hands. He held Reginald up and pressed the boy's stomach to his head, and then turned and flipped Reginald a distance of about four feet onto the bed. (Wyatt I, at p. 782.)

Defendant said that at one point, he accidentally fell on top of Reginald while performing a move he called "comin' off the top rope." Defendant explained that Reginald rolled unexpectedly just as defendant was about to jump on the bed. When defendant landed, his hip came down on Reginald, along with most or all of defendant's body weight of 170 pounds. Reginald grunted as if the wind had been knocked out of him, but he did not cry and continued to smile and seemed fine. Blake later told ...


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