December 24, 2014

Colorado Court of Appeals: Codefendant’s Guilty Plea Cannot Be Used as Evidence of Defendant’s Guilt

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Rios on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

Second-Degree Murder—First-Degree Assault—Jury Instructions—Plea Agreement—Refusal to Testify—Use of Physical Force—Combat-by-Agreement—Self-Defense.

A fight between rival gangs resulted in the death of a 16-year-old (victim) after Lakiesha Vigil, a member of defendant’s gang, drove her car into a crowd of people who had moved their fight to a driveway. She hit the victim, pinning his upper torso against the wall. Vigil then drove the car out of the driveway. It was unclear whether defendant and/or defendant’s cousin, Anthony Quintana, hit the victim with a bat a few times before getting into Vigil’s vehicle. The victim died at the hospital several hours after the incident. Defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury not to consider Quintana’s refusal to testify as evidence of his guilt, and erred in informing the jury about Quintana’s plea agreement. Quintana had entered into a plea agreement whereby he agreed to testify against defendant. However, when called to testify against defendant, Quintana refused to testify. The trial court thereafter erred by instructing the jury regarding Quintana’s guilty plea, because it may have given rise to an impermissible inference of defendant’s guilt, which was not cured by any limiting language. Further, this error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals reversed defendant’s convictions, and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the use of physical force as a self-defense. The trial court erred in instructing the jury on the provocation exception to self-defense, because the evidence did not warrant giving these instructions. Accordingly, on retrial, if the same or similar evidence is presented, the trial court should not instruct the jury on the provocation exception to self defense.

Finally, the court’s combat-by-agreement instructions failed to instruct the jury that the prosecution had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt mutual combat has been established. If this error arises on retrial, it also must be corrected.

Summary and full case available here.

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