Monday, June 03, 2013

People v. Beltran (Cal. Supreme Ct. - June 3, 2013)

The first twenty pages of this opinion are, in my view, simply amazing.

They are perfect.  The writing is crisp.  The analysis is clear.  The author blends precedent, history and commentary in exactly the right amount.

I was actually jealous.  It's crystal clear to me that I cannot write half as well -- or even a tenth as well -- as what appears in those twenty pages.  Not only when I crank things out on the fly in these posts, but even when I sit down with infinite time to write an academic article.  I am just not as talented.  It was amazing.  I was, and am, in awe.

You may perhaps be waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Expecting, perhaps, some snarky comment about what's contained in the opinion after those first twenty pages.

No such luck.

The final eight or nine pages are simply about average.  They address a different argument -- whether there's harmless error in this particular case -- and they are what they are.  What's on those pages is about par for the course.  There are arguments.  You could agree, you could disagree, you could be unsure.  It's what you'd expect from smart people writing an opinion.

But those first twenty pages.  They're something different.  As weird as it sounds, I felt like I was reading art.  Which is something I don't think I've ever felt before when reading an opinion from the California Supreme Court.

I readily concede that the depth of my feeling in this regard may perhaps be idiosyncratic.  I nonetheless believe that any reasonable reader will find the first twenty pages of this opinion to be exceptionally well-written.  Maybe they won't be awed in the same way I was.  But they'll still think those pages are crafted pretty darn well.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to think that they're nothing less than awesome.

For those more concerned about substance rather than style, here's what the case is about.  As accurately -- and helpfully -- summarized in the first paragraph of the opinion:

"Here we clarify what kind of provocation will suffice to constitute heat of passion and reduce a murder to manslaughter. The Attorney General argues the provocation must be of a kind that would cause an ordinary person of average disposition to kill. We disagree. Nearly one hundred years ago, this court explained that, when examining heat of passion in the context of manslaughter, the fundamental "inquiry is whether or not the defendant's reason was, at the time of his act, so disturbed or obscured by some passion . . . to such an extent as would render ordinary men of average disposition liable to act rashly or without due deliberation and reflection, and from this passion rather than from judgment." (People v. Logan (1917) 175 Cal. 45, 49 (Logan).) The proper standard focuses upon whether the person of average disposition would be induced to react from passion and not from judgment."

The factual setting that required the California Supreme Court to resolve this question are a good test case for the issue.  Basically, defendant and the victim were in a relationship, that relationship was marred by domestic violence, and at some point the parties decided to try to get pregnant, but defendant thought that this effort was unsuccessful.  At some later point, the defendant and the victim got into an heated argument, during which the victim called the defendant "a f**king illegal," a "nobody," and said that she "could get better than [him]."  This (understandably) upset the defendant, who started to leave.  At which point the victim said:  "F**k you.  I was right.  I knew you were going to walk away someday.  That's why I killed your bastard.  I got an abortion."

You can figure out from the context of the case what happens next.  Defendant stabs the victim with a knife, killing her, flees to Mexico, gets caught, is put on trial, and the central question is whether defendant is guilty of first degree murder (premeditation), second degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter.  Did the victim's (alleged) comment create "heat of passion" to push the crime into the latter of these categories?  Defendant argued at trial that it did, and argued that the provocation need only be sufficiently strong to potentially push someone into a "rash" act.  The prosecution, by contrast, argued at trial that to qualify as "heat of passion" sufficient to reduce the crime to manslaughter, the provocation needs to be sufficiently strong to push someone to kill someone.  Those are two starkly different tests, and the jury had to choose between them.  During deliberations, the jurors expressly asked a question about which was the correct standard, and the trial judge responded by essentially repeating the instruction that the jurors had been given.

The California Supreme Court's unanimous opinion is that that defendant, not the prosecution, was correct about the relevant standard.  But that there was no instructional error or prejudice because the jury instruction accurately (though vaguely) articulated the relevant rule.

The first twenty pages of the opinion concern the first of these conclusions.  That's the part of the opinion that's incredibly special.  It's also the most important.  The rest of the opinion deals with the latter part.  That's important too -- especially to the defendant -- but perhaps somewhat less so.

So that's what the case is about.  Important in its own right.  But I just want to reiterate how impressive are those first twenty or so pages of the opinion.  Masterful.  Literally masterful.

Well done -- extremely well done -- Justice Corrigan.

P.S. - Part of the prosecution's argument at trial had a somewhat special appeal to me.   Notwithstanding the fact that I think that the California Supreme Court was exactly right to reject the principle for which the prosecution argued.  The prosecutor told the jury during closing arguments:  "We would have probably millions more homicides a year if [the defendant's version of the law about provocation was accurate] . . . . We've all gotten cut off in traffic.  We say the few choice words.  'Oh, my God.'  We don't gun the pedal and start trying to hit the car in front of use to try to kill the person who cut us off."  I hear you.  I have indeed said "Oh, my God" recently to someone who cut me off in traffic.  Though in my case, that utterance was purely out of pain, not passion. 

Funny how the exact same words can mean such starkly different things, depending on context.