105-Year Sentence Reversed Over Jury Instruction

A 105-year-to-life sentence cannot stand because standard jury instructions asked jurors to determine whether, based on his prior sex offense conviction, the defendant had a propensity to commit future sex offenses, a California appellate court has ruled.

The Fresno-based Fifth District Court of Appeal’s decision last week held that the faulty jury instructions lowered the prosecution’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The instruction given in this case, as we have said, presented the jury with a nearly impossible task of juggling competing standards of proof during different phases of its consideration of the same evidence,” wrote Justice M. Bruce Smith.

In addition, the panel found the trial court had not read the defendant his rights before adopting his admission to the prior conviction, and that too contributed to an erroneously high sentence.

Daniel Blea Cruz, Jr. was convicted for multiple rapes of children under age fourteen. During the proceedings, Cruz voluntarily admitted to a prior conviction of a sex offense against a minor, and the trial court adopted this admission without reading him the rights he was waiving with this admission. The trial court then instructed the jury to find that Cruz’ prior sex offense conviction more likely than not demonstrated his disposition toward offending in the future.

Smith explained that the erroneous jury instruction was based on a statute that weakened the prosecution’s burden to prove Cruz’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the trial court should have read Cruz the rights he would be waiving by his admission before Cruz made the admission.

“The difference between 45 years to life and 105 years to life was the difference between having some chance of living to be released and having no such chance,” Smith wrote. The justice added that since Cruz had asked several questions about the agreement to admit the prior conviction before his admission, it was not clear that Cruz understood the rights he was waiving.

The prosecution argued that Cruz had waived his rights to appeal on these issues because he failed to object during the trial, and that since he’d been through the criminal justice process before, he already knew his rights.

Smith pointed out that incorrect use of a jury instruction is reversible error, and since there’s no way to determine in this case whether proper use of procedures would have changed the outcome, the appellate court had to assume it would have, and was required to reverse the sentence on that basis.

Justice Smith was joined by Acting Presiding Justice Jennifer Detjen and Justice Donald Franson, Jr.
Case: People v. Cruz, No. F069940

 

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