Participant's Subjective Awareness of a Grave Risk to Human Life During the Crime

In People v. Smith (2005) 135 Cal.App.4th 914, three men--Taffolla, Smith, and Felix--went to April Star's motel room to rob her. (Smith, supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at pp. 919-920.) Taffolla waited outside Star's room as a lookout, while Smith went inside and Felix left to get his car. Star was later found dead in the room. She had been beaten severely and suffered 27 knife wounds. Her head had been slammed against a wall, leaving a hole in the drywall. The cord from a broken steam iron was wrapped around her neck. Taffolla and Smith ran away to a point where Felix picked them up in his car. When Taffolla told his girlfriend about the incident, he said that Star was not supposed to be killed. (Ibid.) There was no evidence that Taffolla had been inside Star's room. A jury found Taffolla guilty of murder and found true special circumstance allegations of robbery and burglary. (Id. at p. 921.) The Court of Appeal affirmed, stating: "Even if Taffolla remained outside Star's room as a lookout, the jury could have found Taffolla gained a 'subjective awareness of a grave risk to human life' during the many tumultuous minutes it would have taken for Star to be stabbed and slashed 27 times, beaten repeatedly in the face with a steam iron, and had her head slammed through the wall. In addition, when Smith emerged from her room covered in enough blood to leave a trail from the motel to McFadden Street, Taffolla chose to flee rather than going to Star's aid or summoning help." (Smith, supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 927.) As for Taffolla being a "major participant," the jury could have reasonably found "that Taffolla's contributions were 'notable and conspicuous' because he was one of only three perpetrators, and served as the only lookout to an attempted robbery occurring in an occupied motel complex." (Id. at p. 928.) In sum, codefendants Smith and Taffolla were tried for the beating death of a woman in a motel room. Taffolla's girlfriend, Robledo, testified to statements Taffolla made to her after the killing. Taffolla told her that he and Smith and one Felix had gone to the victim's room intending to rob her. Taffolla said he had waited outside the victim's room as a lookout, while Smith went inside and Felix went to get his car. Taffolla also told Robledo there had been an altercation in the room involving an iron, and that Smith had been injured. (Id. at pp. 919-920.) The Smith court ruled that the statements were improperly admitted against Smith as statements against penal interest. (Smith, supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at pp. 921-922.) "Taffolla's statements laid blame for the killing squarely on Smith. And to the extent Taffolla's statements implied that Smith went to the victim's room to rob her, it was not specifically disserving" of Taffolla because it attempted to minimize Taffolla's responsibility or shift blame to Smith. (Id. at p. 922.)