Appeals Court Upholds Conviction Of Manslaughter For DUI Driver

California allows the DA to charges murder or manslaughter against a river who kills someone while drunk, Kern County often elects to file murder charges rather then the lesser crime of manslaughter.  In this recent appellate court case the justices found that the evidence supported a conviction for both but reversed the case due to instructional error.  Here are the details of the opinion, courtesy of CCAP:

In 2006, the defendant drove to a bar with his friend and they drank nearly two pitchers of beer before leaving. On the drive home, the defendant  had a blood alcohol level between 0.13 and 0.24 percent. He took a turn at 57 m.p.h. when the posted speed limit was 40 m.p.h. and crashed. His friend died. At his first trial, the prosecutor charged him with gross vehicular manslaughter and second degree murder. The jury convicted him of gross vehicular manslaughter but hung, 8-4, on the second degree murder charge. At his second trial for the second degree murder charge, the court refused to instruct the jury on gross vehicular manslaughter. It also refused to inform the jury that it was not facing an all-or-nothing situation because the defendant  had already been convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter at his first trial. The second jury convicted the defendant  of second degree murder. the defendant  appealed from the two convictions.

On appeal the second degree murder conviction reversed because although the trial court properly refused to instruct the second jury on gross vehicular manslaughter because the first jury already decided his guilt on that offense, the trial court improperly refused to inform the second jury that the first jury convicted the defendant  of gross vehicular manslaughter. This left the second jury with the false impression that the defendant  would be left entirely unpunished for his actions if the jury did not convict him of murder. His request to inform the jury of his conviction in his first trial did not interfere with the prosecution’s broad discretion to decide what offenses to charge. The error was prejudicial because the case was close, as the first jury hung 8-4.

The Court Found There Was sufficient evidence of gross vehicular manslaughter. The elements of gross vehicular manslaughter are (1) driving a vehicle while intoxicated, (2) committing an unlawful act with gross negligence or committing an ordinarily lawful act which might produce death with gross negligence, and (3) as a proximate result of the unlawful or negligent act, another person was killed. The evidence supported a finding that the defendant drove drunk and that the accident caused his friend’s death. There was also sufficient evidence that the defendant committed Vehicle Code offenses with gross negligence. the defendant had a prior conviction for driving under the influence in 2003 and had attended a first-time offender program that addressed the dangers of drunk driving. A reasonable person in his position would have been aware of the risk involved with driving under the influence.  According to Bruce Blythe, Bakersfield DUI Lawyer , most defendants who suffer a conviction for DUI in Kern County are warned of the dangers of drunk driving as part of the plea process.

The Court Also found there was sufficient evidence of implied malice (second degree) murder. The factors relevant for upholding a murder conviction based on drunk driving are (1) a blood alcohol level above .08, (2) a the defendant  intent to drive after drinking, (3) knowledge of the hazards of driving while intoxicated, and (4) highly dangerous driving. Here, there was sufficient evidence admitted to prove each of those factors. the defendant BAC was between .13 and .24. His plan was to go have a few pitchers of beer with his friend and drive home as evidenced by his actions. He knew about the hazards of drunk driving because he attended a DUI first offender program. And, his driving was highly dangerous because he was speeding when he attempted to make a sharp turn. However, his second degree murder conviction was reversed on other grounds, as discussed above.

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