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People v. Becerrada

Supreme Court of California

April 17, 2017

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
RUBEN BECERRADA, Defendant and Appellant.

         Original Proceeding Superior Los Angeles County No. LA033909, William R. Pounders, Judge

          Michael J. Hersek and Mary K. McComb, State Public Defenders, under appointments by the Supreme Court, and Arnold Erickson, Deputy State Public Defender, for Defendant and Appellant.

          Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Assistant Attorney General, Jaime L. Fuster, David Zarmi and Kimara A. Aarons, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion): Arnold Erickson Deputy State Public Defender, Kimara A. Aarons Deputy Attorney General

          Chin, J.

         A jury convicted defendant, Ruben Becerrada, of the first degree murder of Maria Arevalo with the special circumstances of killing a witness, murder in the commission of kidnapping, and lying in wait. As to the murder, it found true a weapon enhancement allegation. It also found defendant guilty of rape, forcibly dissuading a witness, and kidnapping. After a penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The court denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict and imposed a judgment of death. This appeal is automatic. We reverse the lying-in-wait special-circumstance finding for insufficient evidence, but otherwise affirm the judgment.

         I. The Facts

         A. Guilt Phase

         1. Overview

         The prosecution's theory of the case was that in August 1999, defendant raped the victim, Maria Arevalo, with whom he had been living. When she pressed charges, he tried to dissuade her from testifying. In March 2000, after she refused to drop the rape charge, she drove to his neighborhood and parked near his home, apparently intending to visit him. Defendant attacked her shortly thereafter. In front of witnesses, he beat her, kicked her, and hit her on the head with a beer bottle. He then forced her into her own car and drove her to another location. There, he strangled her both manually and with a ligature and stabbed her multiple times, killing her. Finally, he put her body in the trunk of her car, which he abandoned at another location.

         In its opening statement and closing argument, the defense admitted defendant killed the victim, but it denied that the killing was premeditated and denied he committed the other charged crimes of rape, dissuading a witness, and kidnapping. The defense also denied the truth of the special circumstance allegations of killing a witness, murder in the commission of kidnapping, and lying in wait.

         2. The Evidence

         Maria Arevalo married Juan Arevalo in 1996, when she was 19 years old. They separated about one and a half years later but remained friends. She worked at a Sav-On drug store in Arleta and later at a Manpower employment agency in Sherman Oaks. After she and Juan separated, she began a troubled relationship with defendant, who was about 34 years old.

         During the months leading to August 1999, Juan and others often observed bruises on Maria's arms, legs, and neck. She told Juan that defendant abused her. Juan urged her to end the relationship, but she was afraid to do so. Juan decided to speak with defendant. In a conversation Juan described as “civil, ” conducted at defendant's home on Dorrington Avenue in Arleta in the San Fernando Valley, defendant denied causing any bruising and said Maria was lying. Defendant also told Juan he was a gang member and showed him his gang tattoos.

         Later, Maria told Juan that she had moved in with defendant. She continued to tell him that defendant abused her. She also said defendant had threatened her. She told him “she was afraid about her, her family, and” Juan himself. She did not leave defendant because she was “afraid for her family.” She also expressed the hope that defendant might change.

         Around 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., on August 8, 1999, Maria called Juan on the telephone. She sounded scared and was “almost crying.” He met with her soon after that. Juan observed bruises on her neck, legs, and wrist. She looked scared and was shaking and crying. She told Juan that defendant had raped her. She said what brought it on was that “she wanted to leave.” She said defendant choked her to the point that she was “fading out, ” meaning “losing consciousness.” At that point, “she just stopped fighting.” Defendant tied her up on the bed and forced her to have sex against her will. She later managed to get away. Before she left, defendant told her not to tell anyone what had happened. He said he knew where her family lived and threatened to kill her parents.

         Gerilind Taylor, Maria's supervisor at Manpower, testified that on one occasion in August 1999, she was so concerned about Maria's bruises that she reported them to her corporate office. She saw dark bruising and fingerprints on Maria's neck. When she asked Maria about it, “[a]t first she was very apprehensive, and then she just broke down.” “She said she was scared, and she started crying.” Maria told her that because she had refused to do a “threesome” with defendant and another girl, defendant raped her and tied her up for several hours. She got the bruising on her neck when defendant pulled her up by the neck. Maria said that defendant told her, “ ‘I could easily kill you.' ” She was afraid that defendant might kill her sometime in the next seven or eight months.

         Chris Eck, Maria's coworker at Manpower, testified that he met defendant, introduced as Maria's boyfriend, one time at the office. In Maria's presence, defendant began talking to him about his criminal past. Defendant told Eck “that he had been incarcerated as a juvenile for homicide and later as an adult for a double attempted homicide.” He said “he was a hit man for the Mexican Mafia, ” and that “he had killed people in the past, he'd gotten away with it.” Later, on a Monday in early August 1999, Maria failed to appear at work, which was unusual. The next day, when Eck asked her about her nonappearance, she told him that defendant “had taken her and tied her up and had repeatedly raped her. She managed to escape, and she was beaten up.” She was afraid of defendant. Eck observed “fingerprints around her neck, the bruising from it.” When Eck advised her to report it to the police, she said she was afraid to do so “because Ruben would come after her.”

         Juan also advised Maria to report the rape to the police and took her to the local police department. She did not actually go inside the first time. She was crying and said she was afraid of what defendant might do if she reported it, so Juan took her back home. The next day, Juan called defendant on the telephone and told him he would take Maria to the police station to report the rape. Defendant told him “that I had a family and I should be careful.” He added that he knew where Juan and his family lived and what kind of car he drove. Juan considered it a threat. Defendant also called Maria a liar.

         On August 11, 1999, Juan and members of Maria's family took her back to the police station. This time, she reported the rape. The police photographed her bruises and gave her a restraining order against defendant. On August 16, 1999, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office filed charges against defendant of rape and dissuading a witness. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but he was never arrested on the warrant. As the alleged victim, Maria was to be the main witness against defendant.

         The morning after Maria reported the rape, when Juan left to take Maria to her job at Manpower, defendant was standing at the front door. Maria started screaming to defendant to “get out of there” and showed him the restraining order. Juan said he was going to call the police and grabbed his telephone, at which point defendant left. Within a day or so of this event, two men, apparent gang members, came to the back gate of the house. They told Juan to drop the charges. Concerned about these threats, Juan and Maria moved to another home. Maria also quit her job and began working at Washington Mutual Bank in Northridge. She moved to her mother's house in October 1999. During this time, Maria told Juan about other threats defendant had made to her. She said defendant “knew how to find out things” and showed that he knew where she was living. He told her “he had shot somebody before and got away with it.” He also told her that if he were taken into custody, “he wouldn't go alone, ” which she understood as a threat to her family and Juan. She did not want to tell the police where defendant was living because she was afraid for her family.

         Gerilind Taylor testified that after Maria reported the rape, she told her that defendant had threatened her. He also told her that he would give a “sex video” to her parents. She said that she was afraid because defendant was so angry, but she also loved him and thought she could change him.

         Chris Eck testified that Maria continued to work at Manpower for a couple of weeks after she reported the rape. During this time, Maria said defendant told her “something along the line if I'm going down for this, then I'm going to take you with [sic]. This was a third strike.” Partly because of his criminal past, Maria was afraid that defendant would kill her. Defendant had also threatened to send a sex video to her family if she did not withdraw the rape charge. She was also afraid that defendant would retaliate against Juan. Sometimes, however, she would make excuses for the bruises and said she wanted to help defendant.

         A coworker at Washington Mutual Bank, where Maria began to work after reporting the rape, testified that Maria was “always scared” of her previous boyfriend. The coworker observed bruises on Maria “all the time.” Another coworker at the bank testified that in December and January, 1999-2000, she observed bruising on Maria that Maria said defendant had caused. Maria said that defendant had raped her and she had reported it. She said defendant had told her to drop the case “or he would kill her.” He had also threatened her family. Maria did not tell the police where defendant lived because she was afraid of him. At one point, Maria told the coworker that defendant had sent a sex video to her family to intimidate her and try to get her to drop the charges.

         A friend of Maria's who often worked out with her at a local gym testified that Maria told her defendant had raped her and later threatened to kill her and to hurt her family if she did not withdraw the rape charge.

         Maria Eugenia Herrera, Maria's sister, accompanied Maria when she reported the rape to the police. Maria told her about the rape and defendant's threats, and she observed Maria's bruises. Maria told her that defendant put his hands on her neck and lifted her until she fainted. She also said defendant told her “that he knew how the system worked, and that he could make believe that he was crazy and that way get away with it.” Sometime after Maria reported the rape, Herrera received a video in the mail sent to her address. The video was given to the police. It had a return address of “Guess Who” and showed defendant and Maria having sex.

         Isabel Mejia, Maria's mother, and Laura Patricia “Patti” Arreguin, her cousin, testified that in March 2000, Maria was living with her family in Arleta. Maria and Patti shared a bedroom. Maria told Patti that defendant had raped and choked her. Maria was working at Washington Mutual Bank at the time. On the days she worked, she would leave home at 4:40 a.m. On those days, the telephone regularly rang before Maria left. Maria told Patti the caller was defendant. Isabel told Maria to tell defendant not to call anymore, but the calling continued. Maria told Patti that the detective investigating the rape case often asked her where defendant was living. Although she knew, she did not tell the detective because she feared defendant. In fact, after her meetings with the detective, she would call defendant to assure him that she had not told the detective where he lived. She would say this to defendant “to try to keep him at bay or pacified.”

         Naomi Hernandez, who knew defendant well, testified that at some point, defendant told her that Maria had filed a rape charge. He asked her, “ ‘How can she claim rape when we're living together?' ” He said he expected to be arrested on the rape charge and threatened to kill Maria if he was. He said, “ ‘I'm going to kill' or ‘get that bitch, because I'm not going back to jail.' ” “He kept on referring to a rape.” He also told her that Maria had promised to drop the charge, and he believed she would meet with the district attorney to do so.

         On March 3, 2000, Maria met with the deputy district attorney assigned to her rape case. During the meeting, Maria's telephone or beeper went off. Maria looked at it, made a comment, and became afraid. After the meeting, the case remained open and was awaiting defendant's arrest.

         The next day, March 4, Maria was scheduled to work at the bank beginning at 4:55 a.m. She never arrived. Her sister testified that the telephone at their home rang as usual that morning around 4:00 a.m. Then she heard Maria leave the house as usual. Witnesses and business records established that around 4:45 a.m. that morning, Maria entered the Sav-On drug store in Arleta, where she used to work, and purchased a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, the brand that defendant smoked regularly. Maria did not smoke. The two store employees who saw her testified that she seemed to be in a hurry and was in the store only a short time.

         Vanessa F., 11 years old at the time of these events, was among those living with defendant at the Dorrington Avenue residence in Arleta. Early in the morning of March 4, 2000, while she was still in bed, she heard knocking on her bedroom window. It was defendant. She went to the kitchen to open the back door. She saw defendant alone outside wearing a gray beanie. She did not know what time it was, but it was light outside.

         The Gonzalez family, including teenage sisters M. and L. and their mother, lived just down Dorrington Avenue from defendant. Around 4:45, on March 4, 2000, the sounds of a woman screaming woke them up. The screaming commenced by an alley in the back, then moved along the side of their house to the front. The three women went out the front door and observed a man hitting and kicking a woman, who was in the backseat of a car parked in front. The woman was screaming for help. Somehow the woman got out of the car and looked at the Gonzalez family. Defendant continued to beat and kick her, appearing not to notice the family. He also hit her on the back or head repeatedly with a bottle like a Corona beer bottle. The family called for the woman to come to them, but she seemed to freeze. Suddenly, the woman stopped resisting. The man grabbed her, put her in the backseat of the car, and drove away.

         M. Gonzalez called 911, and the police arrived quickly, but not before the man had sped away with the woman in the back.

         Later that morning, police, responding to a report of an abandoned vehicle, found a bluish gray Nissan Altima in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Van Nuys Boulevard, where defendant used to live. Juan had purchased the car for Maria. Maria's body, with a ligature around the neck, was in the trunk. Her clothing was saturated with blood. The car contained blood both outside and inside, especially in the rear passenger area. The outside blood was smeared, as if it had been wiped with a cloth.

         A witness testified that sometime earlier that morning, she saw a man wiping the car with a rag. The man wore a beanie like one later found in defendant's bedroom.

         The autopsy revealed that Maria died of three separate injuries: “The main injury is strangulation at the throat caused by a hard ligature, ... like a shoe string... tightly wrapped around the throat. The second injury is a stab wound into the jugular vein on the left side of the neck and throat, most probably wounding the vein beneath the ligature cord that was wrapped tightly around the neck. And the third injury which is a potentially lethal injury is a blunt-force traumatic injury to the left side back of the head which caused bleeding under the scalp and also small amount of bleeding on top of her brain.” In addition to the ligature, there was evidence of manual strangulation.

         The ligature was wrapped tightly three times around Maria's neck and tied with a bow or slip knot. Maria's fingernails had been painted with a red acrylic paint. Her right hand was missing three fingernails. Her neck contained abrasions that were probably caused by the victim's fingernails trying to pull the ligature away. A broken piece of a knife remained in her neck beneath the ligature. According to the pathologist, it appeared that “the knife was stabbed into the neck while the ligature was wrapped tightly around the neck and throat. It went downward from top to bottom and beneath the ligature into the vein, through the vein and hit the hard bone of the neck.” Her body contained other sharp-force wounds, including defensive wounds on the hands. In the pathologist's opinion, the victim was still alive at the time of the strangulation and the knife wound to the neck.

         The blunt-force head wound was consistent with being hit by a bottle and could have caused unconsciousness or severe stunning. The pathologist testified that the likely order of the main injuries were, first, the blunt injury to the head, then the ligature, then the knife wound into the jugular vein. “[T]he most immediately lethal wound is the strangulation.”

         Because of the absence of evidence of a struggle at the Van Nuys Boulevard apartment complex where the car was abandoned, it appeared Maria was not killed there but at an unknown location. Her body was then placed in the trunk and driven to the Van Nuys location. The trunk contained very little blood.

         In the area where the Gonzalez family observed the assault, police found fingernails painted with red acrylic paint that forensic testing established were consistent in all respects with the fingernails that remained on Maria's body. In the same area, police also found Corona beer bottles, one broken.

         Defendant was arrested the evening after Maria's body was found, but initially only on the rape charge. He had fresh scratches and other injuries, some of which could have been inflicted by Maria's fingernails. Even though no one mentioned the murder to him, he told the police that he did not kill anyone. He asked one police officer “why he was arrested for 187, ” an apparent reference to section 187 of California's Penal Code, which defines murder. He told the same officer something like “he didn't want to be a part of his ex-girlfriend's craziness and her having problems with her ex-husband, who he wouldn't be surprised if he went off and killed her.” Witnesses testified that after his arrest, defendant faked having seizures, for which he was taken to the hospital.

         At the time of his arrest, defendant was living with his mother and several others, including Rosa Marquez, on Dorrington Avenue in Arleta. Police searched his bedroom pursuant to a search warrant. They found a gray knit watch cap or beanie, and a blood smeared pack of Marlboro cigarettes identical to those Maria had purchased the morning of her death. They also found an address book that had belonged to Maria. It contained Maria's handwriting but also various notations, some gang related, in a different handwriting. The different handwriting included matters pertaining to Maria, such as her mother's name, and her family's address and telephone number. Police also found an envelope addressed to defendant's brother containing a photograph of Maria and defendant. On the back was written, “This is the bitch, Ruben, JKS.” JKS stands for the Jokers, a clique of the Venice 13 street gang. Defendant bore tattoos consistent with his membership in the Jokers.

         Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis revealed that the blood on the pack of Marlboro cigarettes found in defendant's bedroom, the blood found on the street on Dorrington, and the blood from Maria's car could not have come from defendant but was consistent with Maria's blood. One analyst testified that the profile of the samples she tested would occur in about one person in 330 billion among unrelated individuals in the Hispanic population and even less often in other population groups.

         The distance from Maria's home to the Sav-On drug store was a little over two miles. The distance from there to the two Dorrington Avenue addresses was a little under one mile. The distance from the Dorrington Avenue addresses to the apartment ...

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