A man who was driving a truckload of stolen appliances when a stove tumbled from the vehicle, causing a crash that killed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, may be released from prison after an appellate court reduced his conviction.
Cole Wilkins, 43, of Long Beach had just stolen a shipment of appliances from a home under construction in Riverside County and was driving on the 91 Freeway in Orange County about 5 a.m. on July 7, 2006, when an unsecured stove fell onto the roadway. David Piquette, a 10-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, was driving to work from his Corona home and swerved to avoid hitting the appliance. He collided with a cement truck, which landed on top of his car and crushed him.
Wilkins is currently serving a sentence of 16 years to life in Avenal State Prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in 2017. But a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana ruled Tuesday that jurors did not have enough evidence to prove Wilkins’ actions contained the “implied malice” needed to qualify for a second-degree murder conviction. Instead, the panel changed his conviction to involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum term of four years.
“There was no evidence that Wilkins was speeding, making abrupt lane changes or otherwise driving dangerously,” Justice Eileen C. Moore wrote in the decision. However, she noted that “Wilkins’s actions of loading his truck with large stolen appliances in an unsafe manner (not tying them down), and driving on the freeway with the tailgate down plainly establish criminal negligence,” which caused Piquette’s death. She concluded that involuntary manslaughter would be a more appropriate conviction.
The court’s decision marks a major turning point in the case, which was originally sullied by alleged misconduct by law enforcement and prosecutors in the Orange County district attorney’s office. Wilkins has fought his case for more than a decade, all the way to the California Supreme Court.
“We were really excited over here just because it was a great outcome and so well-deserved for Cole,” said Orange County Deputy Public Defender Sara Ross, who defended Wilkins in Superior Court. “I think the prosecution team at the time really wanted to get Cole because they didn’t like the allegation that he had stolen the property and they didn’t like that the victim was a cop. I think they were doing anything they possibly could to cheat and get him locked up.”
It is not clear whether the state attorney general’s office plans to appeal the ruling. A representative for the agency said Wednesday it is still reviewing the decision.
Wilkins has been in prison since 2008 when he was found guilty of first-degree murder under the “felony-murder rule,” which states that a defendant may be convicted of first-degree murder if someone died while the person was committing a felony, such as a burglary, even if the defendant did not intend to kill. However, the state’s high court overturned his conviction in 2013 on the grounds the jury was not properly instructed.
Before his retrial, Wilkins learned that California Highway Patrol officers had destroyed and altered their reports on the case, which contained differing opinions about the cause of the crash. The prosecution had failed to disclose this exculpatory evidence to Wilkins’ defense attorney during the first trial. The trial court ultimately found that misconduct had occurred and, as a sanction, excluded felony murder as a possible charge.
Wilkins had sought to have the case against him dismissed completely based on allegations of outrageous government conduct, but the appeals panel did not accede to the request.
“In the colloquial sense, the destruction and altering of police reports is certainly outrageous and intolerable under our criminal justice system,” Moore wrote. “But the dismissal of a criminal charge remains ‘an extraordinary remedy ... reserved for the few cases where conduct by the prosecution has completely eliminated the possibility of a fair retrial.’”
Wilkins is expected to appear in Orange County Superior Court to be resentenced. A date for that hearing has not been set.