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California Court of Appeal Reverses Murder Conviction Because Superior Court Erred by Allowing Deceased’s Out-of-Court Statements Into Evidence

by Douglas Ankney

Division One of the Fourth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal reversed Rene Quintanilla, Jr.’s murder conviction because the Superior Court allowed as evidence the deceased’s out-of-court statements under the hearsay exception in Evidence Code § 1390.

Quintanilla killed his live-in girlfriend (identified only as Charlene) by shooting her in the chest with a shotgun. He was charged with several felonies, including murder.

The People filed a motion in limine to admit out-of-court statements Charlene had made to friends and family members describing Quintanilla’s domestic violence toward her over the years of their relationship. The trial court ordered a foundational hearing to determine if the statements could be admitted as evidence under the hearsay exception in Evidence Code § 1390. Under § 1390, out-of-court statements made by a person unavailable to testify at trial may be admitted as evidence if the defendant “engaged ... in wrongdoing that was intended to, and did, procure the unavailability of” the witness. At the hearing, the trial court heard testimony from:

• Charlene’s aunt who testified that Charlene said Quintanilla strangled her twice (once with his bare hands and once with a belt causing her to lose consciousness); Quintanilla tied Charlene to a chair, duct-taped her mouth, put a bag over her head, poured gasoline over her, and lit a lighter and that Quintanilla was stopped only because Charlene’s daughter went to get Quintanilla’s mother who intervened; and Charlene said she was scared of Quintanilla, but she didn’t go to the police because she loved him.

• Charlene’s friend Maria testified that Charlene came to live with her on three occasions due to Quintanilla abusing her. Charlene told Maria that Quintanilla beat her with his fists, blackened her eyes, broke her nose, and strangled her twice. Maria saw the black eyes and broken nose.

• Charlene’s friend Andrea testified that she saw bruises on Charlene’s face and arms, and Charlene said Quintanilla had beaten her and caused her to have a miscarriage.

• Charlene’s sister testified that she saw Charlene with a knife wound, and Charlene said that Quintanilla tried to stab her; the sister also testified that Charlene told her about the incident with the gasoline.

• Detective Christian Vaughn, who testified as an expert on domestic violence, explained that, in general, abusers often dissuade victims from reporting the violence to police through control, separation/isolation, and intimidation but testified that he didn’t have any facts on which to conclude that Quintanilla killed Charlene to keep her from reporting the abuse to police.

The trial court concluded that from these numerous instances of abuse it was reasonable to infer that Quintanilla had abused and ultimately killed Charlene to prevent her from reporting the abuse and testifying as a witness. The court allowed the witnesses to testify at Quintanilla’s trial regarding what Charlene told them. Quintanilla was convicted of several counts, including first-degree murder, and he appealed. Among his many issues, he argued that the trial court erred in admitting Charlene’s out-of-court statements.

The Court of Appeal observed “[h]earsay evidence is evidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing and is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated.” Evidence Code § 1200(a). Except as provided by law, hearsay evidence is inadmissible. Evidence Code § 1200(b). But if the defendant engages in an act of wrongdoing that is intended to cause the unavailability of the declarant as a witness, and the wrongdoing does cause the declarant’s unavailability, then the declarant’s out-of-court statements are admissible. Evidence Code § 1390(a). The defendant may have numerous reasons for engaging in the wrongdoing, but § 1390 applies as long as at least one of those reasons was to prevent the declarant from testifying. People v. Kerley, 23 Cal.App.5th 513 (2018). However, substantial evidence must support a trial court’s determination to admit the declarant’s out-of-court statements. People v. Brown, 73 P.3d 1137 (Cal. 2003). 

In the present case, the Court observed there was substantial evidence that Quintanilla repeatedly abused Charlene. But there was little, if any, evidence – and certainly not substantial evidence – Quintanilla engaged in wrongdoing with the requisite intent to prevent her from testifying about the abuse, according to the Court. Nor was there substantial evidence that he killed Charlene to prevent her from testifying about the abuse. The Court noted that Charlene never reported the abuse “because she loved him;” Quintanilla was never charged with abusing Charlene; there was no active prosecution against Quintanilla for abusing Charlene; and Charlene wasn’t scheduled to appear as a witness against Quintanilla. Thus, the Court concluded it was error to admit the evidence under the hearsay exception in § 1390.

Because the jury convicted Quintanilla of first-degree murder (murder that is willful, deliberate and premeditated) rather than second-degree murder (murder that is rash and impulsive), there was a reasonable probability the jury relied on the strangulation and gasoline incidents to support their finding of guilt of first-degree murder because that was the only evidence of Quintanilla behaving with deliberation and premeditation, the Court said. Consequently, the Court ruled that the trial court’s error was not harmless. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: People v. Quintanilla, 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 177 (2020). 

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Related legal case

People v. Quintanilla



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