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Murder Victim with Aggravated Preexisting Condition

In 1993, Defendant Albert Garcia physically assaulted and stole money from an 82-year old man, who died about an hour later from lethal cardiac arrhythmia, i.e., irregular beating of the heart.  Mr. Garcia had put the 82-year old man in a headlock and robbed him.

After being released from the headlock, the 82-year old man walked across the street into a furniture store nearby and asked to use the phone.  He explained that he had just been robbed.  According to witnesses, the looked pale, upset and frightened.  His hands were shaking and his speech was slurred.  He then made the call to 911, wherein he described his assailant and what happened.  His condition later deteriorated and he passed out.  Resuscitative efforts were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead.

A jury in Sacramento County found Mr. Garcia guilty of first-degree murder (Penal Code § 187) and robbery (Penal Code § 211).  The People’s theory was that this was felony-murder and that the felony-murder rule applied because there was substantial evidence that the robbery, due to either the physical altercation or the emotional distress, caused the victim’s death.

The trial court judge sentenced Mr. Garcia to 27 years to life in prison.

On appeal, the Third Appellate District affirmed the judgment.

In 2019, after the passage of Senate Bill 1437, which narrowed the class of persons eligible for felony murder, Mr. Garcia petitioned for resentencing under Penal Code § 1170.95 (now § 1172.6).

Following a hearing, the trial court denied the petition, finding that as a matter of law Mr. Garcia was the actual killer and therefore he would still be guilty of first-degree murder under the revised murder statute after the passage of SB 1437.

Mr. Garcia appealed to the Third Appellate District.  In his appeal, he argued there was no “actual killer” because the victim died of a preexisting medical condition aggravated by the stress of the underlying felony. 

The Third Appellate District disagreed with Mr. Garcia, finding he was indeed the actual killer and therefore, Mr. Garcia would still be convicted under the new felony murder rule.

The appellate court pointed out that, “For felony murder, the required mental state is the specific intent to commit the underlying felony.” People v. Booker (2011) 51 Cal. 4th 141, 175.  Moreover, the felony-murder rule “covers a variety of unintended homicides resulting from reckless behavior, or ordinary negligence, or pure accident . . .” People v. Billa (2003) 31 Cal. 4th 1064, 1068.  Put another way, once an individual perpetrates or attempts to perpetrate one of the enumerated felonies, then in the judgment of the Legislature, he is no longer entitled to such fine judicial calibration [as to causation], but will be deemed guilty of first-degree murder for any homicide in the course thereof.”  People v. Farley (2009) 46 Cal. 4th 1053, 1121.

Nonetheless, “while the law does not require a strict causal or temporal relationship between the felony and the murder (People v. Prince (2007) 40 Cal. 4th 1179, 1259), there must be some connection between the two.”  As the California Supreme Court explained, “[T]he felony-murder rule requires both a causal relationship and a temporal relationship between the underlying felony and the act resulting in death.”  The “causal relationship is established by a ‘logical nexus’ between the felony and the homicidal act, and ‘the temporal relationship is established by proof the felony and the homicidal act were part of one continuous transaction.”  People v. Wilkins (2013) 56 Cal. 4th 333, 346-347.

The appellate court then acknowledged, further, that proximate cause is a “universal factor common to all legal liability,” including criminal liability.  People v. Harrison (1959) 176 Cal. App. 2d 330, 333.  It then explained that there can be more than one proximate cause even when there is only one known actual or direct cause of death.  People v. Sanchez (2001) 26 Cal. 4th 834, 846.  A cause is concurrent if was operative at the time of death and acted with another cause to produce the death.  Id., at 847; see also People v. Jennings (2010) 50 Cal. 4th 616, 643 (a defendant can be criminally liable for a result directly caused by his or her act, even though there is another contributing cause). 
In other words, to be considered the proximate cause of the victim’s death, the defendant’s act must have been a substantial factor contributing to the result, rather than insignificant or merely theoretical.  Jennings, supra, at 643.

Turning to Mr. Garcia’s argument that his conduct was not the proximate cause of the death, the court rejected this argument because there could be no doubt that his robbery was a substantial factor in making the victim anxious, raising his heart rate and causing his lethal cardiac arrhythmia, i.e., irregular beating of the heart.

For more information about murder with attenuated causation issues, please click on the following articles:
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