Wednesday, January 31, 2007

People v. Flores (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 31, 2007)

Whoops. What happens when the judge forgets to instruct the jury about something so fundamental as the reasonable doubt standard? The conviction gets reversed.

Or at least it does here. There's an interesting doctrinal debate between Justice Huffman (who writes the majority opinion) and Justice McDonald (who writes separately) about whether such an error is subject to constitutional harmless error review or is instead structural error. My sense is that Justice McDonald, who argues the latter, probably has the better of the argument, but Justice Huffman articulates the contrary view fairly well. Still, to affirm a conviction in which the jury wasn't at all instructed about the reasonable doubt standard seems to expand harmless error review beyond its rational limits, and even purely as a matter of precedent, I think that Justice McDonald may better interpret the cases. (Plus, in truth, if harmless error was the appropriate standard, I think the prosecution would have a decent argument here. Justice Huffman does a great job of explaining why each of the various instructions given by the trial court didn't substitute for an actual reasonable doubt instruction. That said, I'm pretty darn positive that a jury -- and, in particular, this jury -- knows full well that a defendant in a criminal case can be convicted only when there's no reasonable doubt. That's pretty darn basic, and especially here, I can't fathom the jury not knowing that fact.)

Admittedly, here, it doesn't matter, since everyone on the panel agrees that defendant's conviction must be reversed under either standard. So, as applied here, it's a largely academic debate, albeit an important one whose conclusion may substantially affect other cases.

Parenthetically, how embarrassed must the trial court -- Judge Peter Deddeh (down here in San Diego) -- be about forgetting the reasonable doubt instruction. That's a pretty big mistake. And I'm sure one that he's not likely to repeat again anytime soon.