The justices of the Supreme Court of California reviewed a direct appeal from the appellant, Alfred Flores, III, who was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, and upheld the Superior Court’s conviction.
In 2001, defendant Flores was arrested and tried for the murders of three teenage boys, identified as Torres, Ayala and Van Kleef, for refusing to join the El Monte Trece gang. Flores sought to recruit the victims because they were friends with another teenaged member of the gang. The prosecution theorized that the first victim, Torres, was killed after “disappointing” Flores by failing to show up at his initiation ceremony. The second victim, Van Kleef, was killed because he witnessed the Torres murder. The last victim, Ayala, was killed out of Flores’ fear that Ayala would implicate him for the Torres murder. The cause of death of all three victims was by gunshot. The jury convicted on all three counts of murder and Flores was sentenced to death.
In his appeal case, the defendant presented jury selection issues, and denial of a motion to exclude firearm evidence and alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Upon selecting jury members for this trial, the defense and prosecutorial parties agreed to a juror pre-screening procedure that asked prospective jurors to first fill out a hardship questionnaire. After evaluating the answers on the questionnaire, the parties then determined which jurors could be excused. The remaining group received another questionnaire, this one being case-specific. Again, after evaluating the answers on the questionnaire, the parties determined which jurors should be excused before voir dire.
The defendant, who initially agreed to this procedure, now challenged it on appeal. He claims that it violated the two sections in the Code of Civil Procedure which require courts to randomly select the names of jurors for voir dire and for the trial judge to conduct initial examination of prospective jurors.
The justices decided that Flores’s claim lacked merit because the two sections of the Code of Civil Procedure in question do not forbid pre-screening procedures and allow the court to exercise its discretion to allow counsel to prescreen jurors.
Flores also contends that the dismissal of a prospective juror for their views on capital punishment violates his state and federal constitutional rights to due process of the law, to a fair and impartial jury and to a reliable penalty verdict. The justices do not see this as a violation so long as prospective jurors set aside their personal opinions and defer to the law.
During the trial, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the handgun presented as evidence, any testimony as to its use and recovery and the ballistics evidence comparing the handgun and recovered casings. Flores claimed the police manipulated and destroyed evidence that would have been exculpatory because the fingerprints on the handgun could have excluded him.
The San Bernardino police recovered the handgun in Mexico from a gang member’s mother’s nephew. Her nephew purchased the handgun allegedly used in the homicides from a third party in Mexico. The gun was given to a Mexican detective, in accordance with the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Mexico, which provides for mutual legal assistance between the United States and Mexico in criminal matters. The Mexican detective wiped down the gun before putting it in the evidence bag to erase fingerprints to avoid being subpoenaed in the United States.
When the gun was tested for DNA, the criminologist found that the recovered samples from the gun did not match with the DNA samples collected from those involved in the case thus far. No usable fingerprints were found on the gun.
Upon review for appeal, the justices said that they view the evidence “in the light most favorable to the trial court’s ruling and review its decision for substantial evidence.”
In regard to the destroyed evidence, law enforcement agents have a constitutional obligation to preserve evidence, but that is limited to “evidence that might be expected to play a significant role in the suspect’s defense.” The evidence had to have obvious exculpatory evidence before, and be unable for the defendant to recover.
The defendant had to prove that the police acted in “bad faith” in destroying the weapon to establish a due process violation. The justices conclude that the officer who wiped down the prints did so to avoid being subpoenaed in the United States, not to destroy exculpatory evidence.
“[The detective]’s action may have been negligent, but negligence does not establish constitutional bad faith,” the California Supreme Court’s opinion read.
The denial of the motion to dismiss still stands.
Flores next contends that the prosecutor committed misconduct by misstating the evidence during her opening statement and eliciting hearsay when questioning a witness. Flores said this violated his rights to confrontation, due process and a reliable guilt and penalty determination.
The justices determined that the prosecutor did not commit this. Also, because the court instructed the jury that the attorneys’ statements did not constitute evidence, their statements did not affect deliberations.
In the penalty phase, Flores contended that his Miranda Rights were violated and invoked the Eighth Amendment.
When he was arrested, the officer asked the defendant if he wished to have an attorney present. The defendant replied, “Yeah.” The officer then said, “Yes, you do,” to which the defendant confirmed, “Uh huh.” The officer continued to ask confirmation questions despite Flores saying yes. Amid confusion, Flores said that he’d speak to the officer without an attorney.
The defendant argued that his Miranda Rights were violated because the officer should not have continued to talk to him after Flores expressed that he wanted an attorney. However, the justices said that the officer’s further questioning was valid to address the ambiguity in Flores’s answers. Therefore, his Miranda Rights were not breached.
The defendant also argued that the death penalty should not be constitutionally applied to persons the age of 21 and younger, the category of age in which the defendant fell under at the time. He argued that the death penalty for those 21 and younger is “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment. This is because, research shows according to the defendant, that young adults “suffer from many of the same cognitive and developmental deficiencies as adolescents.”
The justices find no violation to the Eighth Amendment.
After considering and reviewing the defendant’s contentions, the justices of the Supreme Court of California affirm the trial court’s judgment and uphold the death penalty imposed on Flores.
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