Likening the defendants to battered wives, a state appeal court panel has ordered new trials for two heroin addicts convicted of murdering a San Diego drug dealer who had threatened them.
In a split decision, a panel of the Fourth Appellate District reversed the convictions of Luis Ramirez Tapia and Guillermo Licon Diaz, who in 1982 shot and killed Frank V. Garcia, a heroin dealer and user with a reputation as a “violent bully,” according to the decision, written by Justice Howard B. Wiener.
“There is no question in this case that the series of beatings, assaults and threats to which Tapia and Diaz were subjected, coupled with their knowledge of Garcia’s reputation for violence, was such as to make any rational person fear for his life,” the decision said.
“Both defendants were illegal aliens and heroin addicts and both testified they felt they had no one to turn to and nowhere else to go other than the Sherman Heights area, which Garcia and his gang terrorized. Often the fear which leads a woman to kill her husband is the product of repeated threats and beatings which occur over a long period of time,” Wiener wrote.
Because of the circumstances of the case, the panel ruled, the juries at the men’s trials in 1983 should have been permitted to consider findings of voluntary manslaughter--killing in the heat of passion. Instead, Superior Court Judge Artie G. Henderson instructed the juries to consider only first-degree murder charges.
Justice Don R. Work concurred in the decision, but Justice William L. Todd Jr. filed a strongly worded dissent, saying that the battered-woman syndrome “involves unique attributes of an ongoing, male-female relationship having no bearing on this case.”
Deputy Atty. Gen. Yvonne H. Behart said Friday that an appeal of the decision is likely. The convictions were thrown out once before by the Fourth Appellate District on grounds that there were not enough Spanish-language interpreters in the courtroom, but the California Supreme Court reversed that decision, Behart said.
“When the case was sent back, they (the appellate judges) tried to come up with something else so as not to eat crow,” Behart said. “This court just will never admit an error so they just found something else on which to hang their hats. . . . I just don’t see how they can apply the battered-wife syndrome to those two drug addicts, who planned the murder and knew what they were doing.”
Lived in Sherman Heights
At the time of the killing, Tapia and Diaz lived in the Sherman Heights area with a heroin dealer named Manuel Mendoza, according to evidence at their trials. Garcia was then the chief of the “Sherman” gang, whose violence and drug-related activities were centered in the Sherman Heights area, the evidence showed.
Garcia carried a gun and often robbed and extorted money from illegal aliens who lived in the neighborhood. He forced Tapia, Diaz and Mendoza to leave their apartment, beat Tapia and Mendoza, knocked Mendoza’s teeth out with the butt of a shotgun, and threatened to kill them. He also threatened to kill both Tapia and Diaz if he saw them in the area again, according to the evidence.
The three tried to avoid Garcia, but, after several accidental confrontations, Tapia and Diaz decided to kill him. They were spurred on by Mendoza, who threatened to cut off their supply of heroin if they failed to kill Garcia, according to the evidence.
One night, Tapia and Diaz painted their faces black, drove to the area and waited for Garcia to appear. When he did, they approached from behind, and Tapia fired three shots into Garcia’s back. After Garcia fell, Diaz shot him once in the face.
A charge of voluntary manslaughter traditionally is thought to mean a killing in a fit of intense anger, the decision said, but under California law other intense emotions such as fear may be used to support a voluntary manslaughter charge instead of first-degree murder.
The defendants were “arguably motivated to kill by an intense fear that otherwise the victim would soon kill them,” the decision said.
“Courts in several states have required instructions on a heat-of-passion theory in battered-wife cases, even where the wife chooses to kill the husband at a point in time where there is no imminent threat of physical harm,” the decision said.
In his dissent, Todd said there are no parallels between the circumstances of drug addicts and those of battered wives.
A person who plans a murder is not entitled to consideration of voluntary manslaughter charges based on the battered-woman analogy “whenever he testifies he feared his dead victim because of some observed threatening conduct by the victim some time in the past,” Todd wrote.