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People v. Morales

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

July 14, 2015

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
JOEL RODRIGUEZ MORALES, Defendant and Appellant.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County, No. FVA1100130, Stephen A. Mapes, Judge.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Brett Harding Duxbury, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Eric Swenson and Ryan H. Peeck, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.



A jury found defendant and appellant Joel Rodriguez Morales guilty of second degree murder (Pen. Code, [1] § 187, subd. (a)) and found true the allegation that he personally used a deadly and dangerous weapon (§ 12022, subd. (b)(1)). The court sentenced defendant to 15 years to life in prison consecutive with the one-year enhancement.

On appeal, defendant contends a police station interview turned custodial when officers pre-Miranda[2]repeatedly accused defendant-the prime suspect in the homicide-of lying and being deceitful, after informing defendant he failed a polygraph test. Defendant further contends the officers' subsequent midstream Miranda advisement was ineffective because his statements pre-Miranda, including that he and the victim argued over money, they got angry

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and came to "blows, " were coerced, and thus all of his post-Miranda statements made during the same interview also should have been excluded.

Defendant next contends the courthouse statements he made four days later, when he was contacted shortly before his arraignment by one of the officers involved in the police station interview and further questioned about the victim's homicide, also should have been excluded because the initial Miranda advisement at the station was ineffective and because the officer did not then re-advise defendant of his Miranda rights.

As we explain, we independently conclude from the totality of the circumstances that after defendant took and (allegedly) failed the polygraph test, a reasonable person in defendant's position would surmise that he or she was not free to leave the station. The record shows the police then pre-Miranda (1) aggressively and repeatedly accused him of lying about his lack of knowledge or involvement in the homicide; (2) told defendant to "sit down, " "listen" and "understand" that they did not have defendant at the station merely to have him there but already knew he was involved in the homicide because they had the answers to the myriad questions they were repeatedly asking him; and (3) continued after the (allegedly) failed polygraph test to question defendant in an increasingly aggressive, confrontational and accusatory manner, which interrogation ultimately led to defendant's statement he and the victim argued over money and came to "blows."

We also independently conclude there is no substantial evidence to support the finding defendant's statements at the police station post-Miranda were uncoerced or were otherwise the product of his own free will. (See Oregon v. Elstad (1985) 470 U.S. 298, 307 [84 L.Ed.2d 222, 105 S.Ct. 1285) (Elstad).) As such, we conclude the post-Miranda statements made by defendant at the police station also should have been suppressed as the product or "fruit" of the officers' coercive interrogation.

In light of our conclusion that the police subjected defendant to custodial interrogation in violation of Miranda when they questioned him for several hours at the police station, we also independently conclude the courthouse statements defendant made to the police four days later should have been suppressed as the product of such violation, as the record shows defendant was not given an additional Miranda advisement before questioning resumed.

Finally, we conclude the error in failing to exclude defendant's stationhouse and courthouse statements was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18 [17 L.Ed.2d 705. 87 S.Ct. 824] (Chapman). We thus reverse defendant's conviction and remand the matter to the trial court with directions to vacate its order denying defendant's motion to suppress and to issue a new order granting that motion.

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Nelson Rizo testified he and victim Jesus Trejo lived as roommates for about two years in an apartment in Fontana. Trejo drove a red convertible Mustang. According to Rizo, Trejo never gave others permission to drive his car.

On Friday morning, January 14, 2011, Rizo left the apartment to go to work. Rizo did not return to the apartment until about 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. the following Monday, as sometimes he stayed the night at work. Rizo reported that sometimes defendant also stayed the night at their apartment.

When Rizo came home on the morning of January 17, he found the victim's car missing and the victim's bedroom door locked. Later that day, Rizo cleaned the apartment after he smelled a foul odor. The next day, the odor got worse. Rizo called his friend "Martin" looking for defendant, in an attempt to locate the victim. Martin told Rizo he saw defendant driving the victim's car. After learning defendant was driving the victim's car, Rizo became concerned and decided he needed to open the victim's bedroom door.

Martin Ramos testified he knew the victim and Rizo were roommates. Ramos saw defendant driving the victim's car on January 17. According to Ramos, defendant drove the victim's car to visit Ramos's roommate, Abel Perez.

Perez testified he saw defendant driving the victim's car about 12:30 p.m. on Friday, January 14 and again on Monday, January 17. According to Perez, defendant did not look or appear injured on either occasion. Perez also saw defendant with the victim's cell phone, which defendant used to call Perez. When Perez asked defendant why he had the victim's car, defendant said the police had arrested the victim and had left the victim's car with defendant.

Anthony Canales testified he owned the apartment where the victim resided. Canales received a phone call from Rizo about an odor in the apartment. Canales went to the apartment, spoke with Rizo and they called police. When police arrived, they instructed Canales to call a locksmith to open the victim's locked bedroom door.

San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff Charles Nichols testified he was dispatched to an apartment building mid-morning on January 18, where he met the building's owner, Canales. Nichols testified he was standing about 30 or 40 feet from the building when he smelled an odor that was clearly coming from inside the building. After the locksmith opened the victim's bedroom

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door, Nichols and another deputy went inside and found the victim deceased. The victim was located just inside the doorway, at the base of the bed, and was "covered in blankets."

Homicide Detective Neal Rodriguez testified he and others performed a walk-through of the victim's apartment and although the apartment was "dirty, " initially the detectives found nothing "out of place" and nothing in the apartment itself suggesting there had been "any sort of physical fight or altercation" involving the victim. Rodriguez saw blood in the victim's room, near the victim's body. Otherwise, Rodriguez did not see any blood smears; blood splatter; "drag, " "kicking, " or "scuffing" marks; or other indicia typical of a struggle.

Rodriguez saw a two-liter soft drink bottle on the floor near a coffee table. He also saw a section of the couch separated in the living room, coins and clothes all over the living room floor, and possible blood stains on the living room ceiling. Rodriguez found the victim inside his room, in a decomposed state. The victim was wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket with a USB cord tied around his neck. They also found clothes with what appeared to be blood stains. Once the blankets were removed, police found evidence of blunt force trauma to the victim's chest and head. Rodriguez noted everything in the victim's room appeared to be "in place, " suggesting there also was no prolonged physical altercation or violence in that room.

A few days later, based on additional information (discussed post), Rodriguez and Detective Armando Castillo, Jr. (one of the officers who conducted the stationhouse interview of defendant, as also discussed post), returned to the victim's apartment and found a large and "heavy" stick underneath some curtains. There appeared to be dried blood on one end of the stick.

Homicide Detective Jose Avila testified he participated in the January 20, 2011 stationhouse interview of defendant. According to Avila, that interview was in Spanish and was primarily conducted by Castillo. The interview was videotaped and was played for the jury.[3] The record shows the jury also heard

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an audio recording of a subsequent conversation between Castillo and defendant (also discussed post), which took place four days after the stationhouse interview.[4]

Forensic pathologist Frank Sheridan testified the victim had been dead "some time" when he was found by the officers. Dr. Sheridan opined the victim died of blunt force trauma likely caused by repeated blows of considerable force to the head. During the autopsy, Dr. Sheridan found the presence of a number of injuries to the victim's head: "There were indications of impacts to the head, and the left side of the head particularly was especially badly damaged with the extensive fracturing of the skull on the left side and some underlying -- smaller underlying hemorrhage inside the vault of the scalp." Dr. Sheridan also found lacerations to the victim's head and bone fragments in the victim's brain, both of which were consistent with blunt force trauma.

With respect to the USB cable wrapped around the victim's neck, Dr. Sheridan noted the cord was tied in a "bow-type knot." Dr. Sheridan opined the cord had nothing to do with the victim's death, as Dr. Sheridan found no internal injury to the neck region. Dr. Sheridan thus ruled out strangulation as the cause of death of the victim.

Dr. Sheridan opined that given the extensive trauma to both sides of the victim's head, the victim likely became unconscious "fairly quickly"; and that once the skull became fractured and was no longer protecting the victim's brain, the brain would begin to swell and cause the victim to die as it cut off the respiratory center in the brain. Dr. Sheridan opined the victim likely died within "minutes" from the blows to his head. Dr. Sheridan also saw no evidence of any "defensive wounds" on the victim, such as to the victim's hands or forearms that might be expected if the victim had attempted to block any blows by his attacker. Dr. Sheridan pointed out, however, that the decomposition of the victim's body may have been a "factor" in the lack of any evidence of such wounds.


As noted, defendant claims he was in custody for Miranda purposes at the latest when he was repeatedly told by officers that the results of his polygraph test showed he was lying about his knowledge of and involvement in the victim's murder.

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A. Additional Factual Background

1. The Police Station Interview

In connection with defendant's pretrial motion to suppress, Castillo testified that defendant was a "person of interest" when police contacted him on January 20. Defendant became a person of interest on January 18, "several hours" after police found the victim's body. Police also prepared a "press release" identifying defendant as a "suspect" in the homicide.

Before police contacted defendant on January 20, they already knew defendant was in possession of the victim's cell phone, was driving the victim's red convertible Mustang and was the victim's occasional roommate.

Once defendant was contacted at a truck yard where he worked, Castillo instructed at least five plain-clothes detectives to "'stand with [defendant]'" until Castillo arrived. Castillo recorded the contact. In response to defendant's question why police were "looking" for him, Castillo told defendant they wanted to talk to him "about a problem" and asked if defendant would be willing to go to the police station "to talk real quick." Castillo told defendant he was not arrested or being detained. Defendant agreed.

Defendant rode in the front seat of Castillo's car during the 20 mile or so drive to the stationhouse. Defendant was not handcuffed. On the way, they talked about each other's family in Mexico among other subject matters, all of which were unrelated to the homicide. Defendant admitted he previously had been arrested for drunkenness.

Once at the station, defendant was placed in an interview room and was offered something to drink and eat. Castillo, joined by Detective Avila, reiterated that defendant was neither under arrest nor being detained and that "[i]f at any moment [he did] not want to speak with [the detectives, he could] leave." Defendant asked Castillo why they were looking for him and what was he being accused of. Castillo did not answer either question.

The record shows Castillo initially asked defendant general background questions. At some point, Castillo asked defendant if he worked at a carwash with the victim. Defendant denied working with the victim but stated he sometimes went to the victim's apartment to hang out and play cards. Defendant referred to the victim as his "best friend" and stated he sometimes stayed the night at the victim's apartment.

On questioning, defendant denied driving the victim's car. Castillo told defendant that witnesses had seen defendant driving the victim's car over the

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weekend. Defendant in response changed his story and said the car belonged to an individual named "Jorge Rodriquez." When Castillo reiterated it was the victim's car, defendant said that the victim and Jorge had been arguing over the car and that the victim left the car to Jorge.

When confronted by Castillo that the previous Saturday defendant had told Abel a different story about how he came into possession of the victim's car, defendant denied lying and said he went to the victim's house on Sunday morning and found the front door open. Defendant claimed that he found the victim's cell phone inside the apartment, near the front door; that when he went inside, nobody appeared to be home; and that he believed somebody had been in the victim's apartment at some point that day because when defendant went back to the apartment later that day, the front door was closed. Defendant also volunteered that Rizo and the victim were arguing over money Rizo allegedly owed the victim.

Defendant told the detectives that he last saw the victim on the previous Tuesday or Wednesday, around noon; that on Saturday afternoon, he met Jorge in front of a liquor store and Jorge lent defendant the red Mustang; and that Jorge told defendant that Jorge had bought the car from the victim, but the victim did not want to turn the car over.

Defendant also told detectives he went to the victim's apartment two days earlier and knocked on defendant's bedroom door, but nobody answered. Castillo responded that they found the victim dead and that defendant was not telling the truth. When defendant denied lying, Castillo asked defendant to take a "lie detector" or "[p]olygraph" test in order to disqualify defendant as a subject of their investigation. Castillo explained the test after defendant said he had never heard of such a test or machine. Defendant agreed to take the test.

2. The Polygraph Test

The polygraph test was conducted at the stationhouse by Examiner Heard.[5] After briefly explaining the test, Heard informed defendant he was not being forced to take the test and he could say he did not want to take it. After learning that defendant had been arrested, deported to Mexico and returned illegally, Heard informed defendant it was important for defendant to tell "the truth, the pure truth, " and that if defendant did not tell the truth, there was no reason to take the test "because it will be wrong."

Defendant told Heard that he helped the victim at work "once or twice"; that he walked to the victim's apartment on a Tuesday the week before; that

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he stayed at the victim's apartment about eight days just before Christmas; that the victim and Jorge argued over the car; and that Rizo owed the victim two months' rent.

Heard next repeated several questions, including asking defendant about the car and his last contact with the victim. At some point, defendant started asking about the lie detector machine. Heard in response said the machine looked into a person's heart and brain and indicated when someone was not telling the truth because a person "relive[s] a lie."

Before Heard administered the lie detector test, he reviewed the questions defendant would be asked and informed defendant he would have to take the test three times in order to obtain accurate results. Heard also reminded defendant he did not have to take the test and he was a "free man right now." (Italics added.) Defendant in response noted that if he did not take the test, "they'll [(i.e., the police)] say I'm lying."

Heard then asked defendant a series of questions three separate times, including whether defendant caused one or more of the victim's injuries that led to the victim's death. At the conclusion of the third and final exam, Heard told defendant the tests were "not turning out well." The record shows the following exchange then took place between Heard and defendant:

"[Heard]: It's not turning out well. Because when you say you did not do anything to Jesus [(i.e., the victim)], it's not turning out well. What are you thinking about? If I can, I can change the questions. The truth is there in your heart, but it's still not on the table. I'm going to get a piece of ...

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