Wednesday, June 17, 2020

People v. Reneaux (Cal. Ct. App. - June 17, 2020)

There's a real intellectual fight -- on something important -- between the majority and the dissent in this case.

It's about the "forfeiture-by-wrongdoing" doctrine.  Something that Mr. Reneaux cares about a lot, as he's spending over 21 years in prison as a result of the Court of Appeal's application of this principle.

The bookends of this doctrine are well-established.  We know that, ordinarily, you have a right to confront witnesses, including your accuser, at trial.  That's an extremely big deal.  So big that it's in the Constitution.  We don't want people going to prison -- for even a second -- based on the hearsay testimony of someone they're not allowed to cross-examine at trial.  Much less for 21 years.

That's one bookend.

The other bookend is that you can't complain about not being able to cross-examine someone who you've, say, killed to stop them from testifying.  We think that's your bad, not ours.  So if there's a witness who's going to testify against you and you murder them before trial to stop them from doing so, we'll allow hearsay testimony (i.e., someone else to testify) about what that witnesses-you-killed-to-stop-her-from-testifying previously said.  We call that "forfeiture by wrongdoing."

Over time, we've expanded the doctrine.  It started with killing; pretty egregious misconduct.  But it also applies to other crimes.  Bribing a witness.  Threatening a witness.  Things like that.

But just how far does the doctrine go?  What about expressing love for a witness?  Does that count?

It's a pattern that's not unique to this particular case.  There's domestic violence, the police get called, the victim tells the police she's been abused, and the abuser gets arrested and put in jail.  While he's in jail, the parties reconcile.  Now she doesn't want to testify against him, and says she made it all up (or tells a different story).  Either the police don't want to put her on the stand, or (as here) she refuses to testify.

Can we nonetheless admit her prior statements to convict the defendant, notwithstanding the inability of the defendant to cross-examine her?

Ordinarily, no.  He's got that right.  If she dies, no hearsay testimony.  Ditto if she gets sick, decides to leave town (or emigrate to Australia), whatever.  Sixth Amendment right.

But, remember, if the defendant, say, bribed her to go to Australia, or threatened that he'd beat her if she didn't go to Australia, that's an exception.

None of that happens here.  Instead, we've got two recorded conversations between the two people, taken four months apart, taken while the defendant's in jail before trial.  The tenor of which are what you might perhaps expect.  With the defendant/alleged abuser saying something like:  "Please, baby, I love you.  You're the best.  I want to be with you.  I don't want to go to prison, without you.  You're awesome.  I want to spend my life with you, rather than spend 21 years in prison."  Combined with an implicit or explicit exhortation to "tell the truth" to the police -- the alleged "truth" being that the abuse was all made up and that what she told the police was a lie.  (In the words of the defendant here:  "I want to [f****n'] marry you . . .  You’re the only place I wanna [f****n'] be, baby, is in your [f****n'] arms."  Defendant's big on the word "f****n'".)

Is that doctrinally equivalent to killing or bribing or threatening a witness?  Does it mean you no longer have the right to cross-examine her at trial?

Let's assume (as one might easily conclude) that the defendant is expressing his love strategically.  If only because the defendant is likely not a moron, and probably realizes that his chances of not dying in prison exponentially improve if the alleged victim recants.  Remember:  Defendant has never said that he expressly wants the witness to lie.  He's said he wants her to tell the "truth" -- to admit that she made "another false report" of abuse.

It bears mention:  Someone entirely innocent might say exactly that as well.  "Honey, please, I love you, don't do this to me, please tell the truth."  And mean by the "truth" the actual truth.

But guilty people -- particularly guilty people knowing that their jail conversations are being recorded -- might say those exact same words.  But by the "truth" mean a lie.  They're not going to say "If you testify against me I'm going to kill you," because that's (1) definitely another crime, (2) definitely gets you forfeiture-by-wrongdoing, and (3) might well be ineffective.  Instead, they express love.  With a goal of achieving the same thing.

Does that waive their Sixth Amendment rights?  If it does, what about simply marrying a witness, with the internal desire that she's then not compelled to testify against you?  Does marrying count as "wrongdoing" in this setting, thereby resulting in forfeiture?

Tough questions.  We know that violence and threats are wrongdoing.  What about sincere (or insincere) expressions of love?  Different, or the same?

The majority says that expressions of love can count and invoke the doctrine.  The dissent disagrees.

You can see the arguments on both sides.  We have to draw a line somewhere.  Where one draws that line is the debate.

A meaningful, very significant debate.

P.S. - I almost forgot, albeit about something far less significant or meaningful.  In the middle of the majority opinion is the sentence:  "Later in the hearing, E. appeared in court with appointed conflicts counsel, attorney Spangler. (The record does not reflect attorney Spangler’s first name.)"  As I read that, I thought:  "Geeze, I don't suspect there are many California attorneys with the last name 'Spangler' anyway, much less in Los Angeles.  Shouldn't be tough to figure out."  Wrong.  There are 19 "Spangler" California attorneys.  Including several in Los Angeles.  And others in places as far afield as New York, Kansas City, Rhode Island, Indianapolis, St. Cloud, etc.  Way more than I'd have thought.  And what a diverse mix of places to end up, eh?  It's almost as if being an attorney named "Spangler" eventually ends up with you fleeing California.  The percentage of Spanglers who end up out of state (and in unusual places like Wakefield, Rhode Island) has got to be a fair piece higher than most other last names, I suspect.  Regardless:  Lots more Spanglers than I would have thought.