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Castillo v. Hatton

United States District Court, E.D. California

October 30, 2019

FRANK R. CASTILLO, Petitioner,
HATTON, Respondent.


         Petitioner Frank R. Castillo, a state prisoner without counsel, seeks a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner argues that a writ should issue because of defects in his criminal trial. Specifically, he maintains that (1) his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the introduction of evidence of a prior act, (2) the state trial court violated his constitutional rights in admitting the prior act evidence, and (3) the prosecutor engaged in misconduct in introducing the same evidence. I recommend that the court deny the petition and decline to issue a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         Petitioner killed a man, who was passed out drunk on a sleeping bag, by kicking and stomping on his head. The alleged motive for the attack was petitioner's involvement in a love triangle with the victim and the victim's girlfriend. All three members of the love triangle, as well as some witnesses who testified at trial, were part of a larger group of homeless people living in Fresno. Petitioner admitted responsibility for the victim's death but argued for a verdict of manslaughter. A jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, and petitioner was sentenced to a total term of 35 years to life.

         I set forth below the facts of the underlying offenses, as stated by the Court of Appeal. A presumption of correctness applies to these facts. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Crittenden v. Chappell, 804 F.3d 998, 1010-11 (9th Cir. 2015).

On April 7, 2012, police responded to a report of domestic violence near East Tulare Avenue and North 2nd Street, an area where homeless individuals frequently congregated and slept. Upon arrival, the investigating officer made contact with Salvio and Vicky Guerrero. Both of them were visibly drunk. Salvio complained that his girlfriend, Ms. Guerrero, had punched him in the mouth and taken his cell phone. Ms. Guerrero was arrested for public intoxication and disturbing the peace.
Castillo allegedly learned of Ms. Guerrero's arrest the following evening while drinking beer with James Paxton, another homeless person who was mutually acquainted with Castillo and Salvio. Although Mr. Paxton denied informing Castillo of Ms. Guerrero's arrest, his trial testimony confirmed that he and Castillo had a discussion about Salvio immediately prior to the subject incident. The conversation took place outside of a convenience store on the northeast corner of East Tulare Avenue and North 1st Street, i.e., one block over from where Salvio customarily slept at night. Castillo told Mr. Paxton that he loved Ms. Guerrero, that the two of them had been dating off and on, and that he was unhappy about her romantic relationship with Salvio. He also expressed anger over Salvio's involvement in Ms. Guerrero's recent arrest. The conversation ended with Castillo walking off in the direction of East Tulare Avenue and North 2nd Street after stating his intention to confront Salvio about these grievances.
Yang Moua and Jeffrey Branning witnessed Castillo's subsequent encounter with Salvio. With the assistance of a Hmong language interpreter, Mr. Moua testified that he had been sleeping next to Salvio when Castillo appeared and began kicking Salvio in the head. Castillo cursed at Salvio throughout the attack, but Salvio did not respond or attempt to defend himself.
Jeffrey Branning provided a more detailed account of the incident. Mr. Branning had been sleeping in the same encampment as Salvio and Mr. Moua when he awoke to the sound of yelling. He saw Salvio lying down and Castillo standing over him, cursing and demanding that Salvio get up. Salvio did not respond, and Mr. Branning initially suspected that he was pretending to sleep to avoid the confrontation. Castillo lifted up his foot and brought it crashing down on Salvio's head, “like you would to smash a pumpkin or stomp a divot into the ground if you play golf . . . . And then he started kicking him . . . kicking his head like a soccer ball.” Mr. Branning estimated that Castillo stomped on Salvio's head approximately five to six times and kicked him eight or nine times. Castillo delivered the blows with “unbridled” force, “like somebody trying to kick a field goal [with a football], only he was using [Salvio's] head.”
Although Mr. Branning considered Salvio to be one of his best friends, he did not intervene and quickly departed from the area with Mr. Moua. He expressed regret over this decision at trial, explaining that he was afraid of Castillo because Castillo had punched him in the face on a prior occasion. Castillo's claim on appeal is based on the admission of Mr. Branning's statements about the previous assault.
After leaving the scene, the two eyewitnesses met up with James Paxton at a nearby establishment. Castillo joined them approximately five to ten minutes later and bought drinks for the entire group. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Paxton went to check on Salvio and found him lying motionless, face down on the ground. Concerned that Salvio was not breathing, he went back across the street and told Mr. Branning to call 911. Paramedics soon arrived and transported Salvio to a local hospital. He was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of April 9, 2012.
Vicky Guerrero testified that Castillo later told her about what he had done to Salvio. She remembered him complaining of “throbbing” foot pain. According to Ms. Guerrero's testimony, Castillo was not immediately aware that he had killed the victim. Castillo knew that he “hurt him really bad, ” but assumed Salvio had at worst suffered a concussion or fallen into a coma.
Police officers located and arrested Castillo on April 12, 2012. He had by then obtained a new set of clothing, but neglected to discard his bloody footwear. Forensic analysis showed that the shoes Castillo was wearing at the time of his arrest contained traces of Salvio's DNA.
Dr. Venu Gopal, the pathologist who performed an autopsy on the victim's body, testified to the nature of his injuries and the cause of death. Toxicology results showed that Salvio had a blood alcohol level of .37 [grams per deciliter]. Despite the dangerously high level of alcohol in his system, Dr. Gopal determined the cause of death to be “head injury due to multiple blunt impacts.”
Salvio sustained a depressed fracture above the right eyebrow. Such an injury is caused when a bone is broken and pushed inward, causing a depression. In other words, the right frontal bone of the victim's skull was pushed in toward his brain, which caused an indentation measuring 1.5 x 1 inches. Dr. Gopal testified that this would have required a “severe degree of force.” In addition to the depressed fracture, the pathologist documented 22 bruises, scrapes, and lacerations on the victim's face. There were no defensive wounds.
The defense strategy was to acknowledge culpability for the homicide and argue for a verdict of something less than first degree murder. In his opening statement, defense counsel told the jury that the evidence would show Castillo was responsible for Salvio's death, but never formed the intent to kill. As trial progressed, it became apparent counsel was hoping to establish the affirmative defense of voluntary intoxication. There was no evidence of how much alcohol Castillo had consumed at the time of the killing, but the defense relied on the impressions of a lay witness who said she believed he was drunk on the night in question.
. . . .
Castillo's trial counsel reiterated the defense theory during closing argument: “I'm going to ask you, frankly, ladies and gentlemen, to find Frank Castillo guilty. . . . I'm going to ask you to find him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.” Counsel went on to argue that Castillo neither intended to kill the victim nor realized his actions could be lethal, and thus did not act with a conscious disregard for life.

People v. Castillo, No. F068969, 2016 WL 4482962, at *1-3 (Cal.Ct.App. Aug. 25, 2016).

         II. ...

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