Special Circumstance Murder Case in California

In People v. Fuentes (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 1133, the defendant was charged with special circumstance murder under section 190.2, subdivision (a)(22), and with gang enhancements under section 186.22, subdivision (b)(1). The trial court instructed the jury with CALCRIM No. 370, which is substantively the same as CALJIC No. 2.51. It states: "'The People are not required to prove that the defendant had a motive to commit any of the crimes charged. In reaching your verdict you may however consider whether the defendant had a motive. Having a motive may be a factor tending to show that the defendant is guilty. Not having a motive may be a factor tending to show the defendant is not guilty.'" (Fuentes, supra, 171 Cal.App.4th at p. 1139.) Fuentes argued that the motive instruction conflicted with the instructions on the gang enhancement and special circumstance, thereby lessening the prosecution's burden of proof. (Fuentes, at p. 1139.) The special circumstance instruction stated that it must be proved that "'the murder was carried out to further the activities of the criminal street gang.'" (Ibid.) The jury was instructed as to the gang enhancement that an essential element was the crimes were "committed with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by gang members." Fuentes took note of the "superficial attractiveness" of the argument that the motive instruction undercut the gang and special enhancement instructions. "Any reason for doing something can rightly be called a motive" and there are "reasons that stand behind other reasons." (Fuentes, supra, 171 Cal.App.4th at p. 1140.) The instructions, however, "by listing the various 'intents' the prosecution was required to prove (the intent to kill, the intent to further gang activity), while also saying the prosecution did not have to prove a motive, . . . told the jury where to cut off the chain of reasons." (Ibid.) Fuentes thus rejected the notion that the motive instruction contradicts the other instructions. "An intent to further criminal gang activity is no more a 'motive' in legal terms than is any other specific intent. We do not call a premeditated murderer's intent to kill a 'motive,' though his action is motivated by a desire to cause the victim's death. Combined, the instructions here told the jury the prosecution must prove that Fuentes intended to further gang activity but need not show what motivated his wish to do so. This was not ambiguous and there is no reason to think the jury could not understand it." (Fuentes, 171 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1139-1140.)