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Vega v. Espinoza

United States District Court, C.D. California

September 20, 2019

JESSICA VEGA, Petitioner,
v.
JANEL ESPINOZA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN L. STEVENSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         On December 7, 2018, Petitioner, a California state prisoner proceeding pro se, filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Dkt. No. 1.) The operative pleading is the Second Amended Petition (“SAP”), which Petitioner filed on January 25, 2019. (Dkt. No. 8.) On June 12, 2019, Respondent filed an Answer to the SAP and lodged with the Court the relevant state court records. (Dkt. Nos. 20, 21.) On July 19, 2019, Petitioner filed a Reply. (Dkt. No. 28.) The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Dkt. No. 22.) Briefing in this action is now complete, and the matter is ready for decision.

         PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

         On December 20, 2016, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury convicted Petitioner, as relevant here, of three counts of first-degree residential robbery (Counts One to Three, Cal. Penal Code (“Penal Code”) § 211), three counts of false imprisonment (Counts Four to Six, Penal Code § 236), and one count of carjacking (Count Seven, Penal Code § 215(a)).[1] (Lodg. No. 2 at 783-85, 788, 791, 794-95.) The jury found true various special allegations, including a principal firearm-use allegation (Penal Code § 12022(a)(1)). (Id.) On February 16, 2017, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to 15 years and 8 months in state prison. (Id. at 1040-49.)

         Petitioner appealed her judgment of conviction. (Id. at 1050.) On June 20, 2018, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment in a reasoned, unpublished opinion. (Lodg. No. 14.) Petitioner then filed a Petition for Review in the California Supreme Court (Lodg. No. 18), which summarily denied the petition without comment or citation of authority on October 10, 2018 (Lodg. No. 19).

         On December 7, 2018, Petitioner filed a § 2254 Petition in this Court. (Dkt. No. 1.) On December 26, 2018, she filed a First Amended Petition. (Dkt. No. 4.) On January 4, 2019, the Court issued an order ordering Petitioner to show cause why this action should not be dismissed for failure to comply with the applicable pleading standards. (Dkt. No. 5.) On January 25, 2019, Petitioner filed a SAP, raising five grounds for federal habeas relief. (Dkt. No. 8.) On February 5, 2019, the Court issued an order stating that Petitioner’s claims in Grounds One and Two appeared to be unexhausted. (Dkt. No. 11.) The Court gave Petitioner four options and ordered her to state how she wished to proceed. (Id.) On February 15, 2019, Petitioner filed a notice stating that she wished to voluntarily dismiss her claims in Grounds One and Two. (Dkt. No. 12.) On February 28, 2019, the Court ordered Respondent to file a response to the SAP. (Dkt. No. 13.) On June 12, 2019, Respondent filed an Answer. (Dkt. No. 20.) On July 19, 2018, Petitioner filed a Reply. (Dkt. No. 28.)

         SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE AT TRIAL

         The following factual summary from the California Court of Appeal’s unpublished decision on direct review is provided as background. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) (“[A] determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct” unless rebutted by the petitioner by clear and convincing evidence.).

         A. The Sandas and [Petitioner]

         In 2015, Alvaro [Sanda], who was around seventy years old at the time, lived in a small home in South El Monte with his adult son Michael [Sanda]. Alvaro is an accountant who was being paid approximately $2, 000 twice per month, on the fifteenth and last day of the month. Michael did not have a fulltime job, but he performed odd jobs to earn money. Alvaro provided Michael free room and board, and also gave him around $40 to $70 per week, in return for performing household chores.

         Michael previously was in a relationship with [Petitioner], whom he had known for five or six years. Michael often gave [Petitioner] some of the money he received from Alvaro because he cared about her and liked her, and because he knew she was using the money to help her daughter. [Petitioner] visited Michael at Alvaro’s house and stayed in Michael’s room. Michael regularly used methamphetamine and [Petitioner] occasionally supplied Michael with drugs.

         Alvaro would sometimes discuss finances with Michael, including how much money he (Alvaro) was making and how he could not always afford to help Michael. Sometimes, [Petitioner] was in Michael’s bedroom when Michael had discussions of this nature with Alvaro in the living room. The living room was close to Michael’s bedroom, and [Petitioner] would have been able to hear their conversations.

         Michael eventually decided [Petitioner] was using him for his money and, in August 2015, told her he did not want her to come to his house anymore. [Petitioner] reacted poorly to Michael’s decision and called him a “loser” and other epithets during a subsequent phone call. [Petitioner] left three shopping bags full of her possessions in Michael’s room.

         B. The Offense Conduct

         Michael communicated with [Petitioner] in early November 2015. On November 15, 2015, [Petitioner] sent Michael a text message stating[, ] “someone’s about to jack you guys” and “I know the whole plan.” Michael did not take her statements seriously.

         That same night, Michael’s friend Normandia drove to Alvaro and Michael’s house and parked his truck in the driveway. Normandia and Michael smoked methamphetamine, and Normandia helped Michael set up a video game console Michael had recently purchased. Alvaro was also home that night.

         At around 11:00 p.m., there was a knock on the door. Alvaro opened the door to find a woman, later identified as defendant Castanon, standing on his doorstop. Defendant Castanon told Alvaro her car had broken down and her phone did not work. She asked if she could have some double-A batteries for her phone. Alvaro thought this was odd, but he gave her batteries because she looked like she needed help. Defendant Castanon thanked him and left.

         Michael and Normandia were in Michael’s room and did not see the woman, but Michael asked his father what happened. Alvaro recounted the woman’s story, waited by the door for a few minutes to see if she would come back, and then went to bed.

         An hour or two later, Normandia decided to go home. When Michael opened the front door for him, he found defendant Castanon and a man standing there. They appeared surprised when he opened the door, and asked if they could borrow his phone. Michael ultimately agreed.

         Normandia then walked out of the house toward his truck and unlocked the door with a remote key. As he moved to open the driver’s side door, he felt a hard metal object pressed into his back. Normandia turned around and saw two men, one of whom (later identified as defendant Fernando) was pointing a gun at him. Defendant Fernando, now pointing the gun at Normandia’s head, ordered him to return to the house.

         Michael saw Normandia walking toward him looking scared. As Normandia and the other men approached Michael, defendant Fernando pointed the gun at Michael’s face and told him to go into the house.

         Once inside, Michael and Normandia were instructed to go to the kitchen. Defendant Fernando pointed the gun at Michael’s head three or four times and repeatedly claimed Michael owed him money. Defendant Fernando asked Michael where his father was, but Michael did not answer. Defendants Fernando and Bojorquez then kicked in Alvaro’s bedroom door and defendant Fernando pointed the gun at Alvaro.

         Alvaro woke to find someone standing in front of him with a gun. Defendant Fernando told Alvaro to get up and go to the kitchen. Alvaro was scared and had no idea what was happening.

         Once back in the kitchen, defendant Fernando said Michael owed him $4, 000 and told Alvaro to give him “the check” for that amount. Michael denied owing him any money and Alvaro did not know what he was talking about. Defendant Fernando repeated that he needed $4, 000 and Alvaro replied he did not have the money. Defendant Fernando waved his gun around and said they were going to “resolve this.” He said he needed the money now and Alvaro better have the money or they would all be in deep trouble. Defendant Castanon similarly asked Alvaro where the check was and conveyed they were serious about needing the money.

         While defendants Fernando and Castanon were making these demands, defendant Jorge alternated between standing nearby and walking between the kitchen and Michael’s room. Defendant Castanon took the wallet in Alvaro’s pocket and instructed defendant Bojorquez to take phones and wallets. Defendant Bojorquez took the keys to Normandia’s truck, and Michael’s video game console was also taken. Defendant Bojorquez also went through the other rooms and ransacked them. At some point, defendant Fernando asked for the “bags” inside Michael’s room. (The evidence presented at trial indicated these bags were the bags [Petitioner] had left in Michael’s room.)

         Defendant Fernando returned to Alvaro, again asked for $4, 000, and asked how long it would take Alvaro to get the money. When Alvaro told him it would take time, defendant Fernando said they would return in two weeks for $2, 000. Defendant Fernando told the victims not to call the police and said they (the robbers) had friends in the neighborhood. ...


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