The California Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a man who stole appliances and caused an accident, resulting in the death of a LA County Sheriff Deputy, an hour later when a stove fell off his truck.
Cole Allen Wilkins of Long Beach was convicted under the “felony-murder rule,” which says a defendant may be convicted of first-degree murder if someone dies while the suspect is committing a felony, such as a burglary or rape. Intention to kill is not required for conviction.
Relying on that rule, an Orange County jury convicted Wilkins in 2008 of first-degree murder because he stole appliances, a felony, and caused the death of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy David Piquette when a stove fell onto the road. Piquette was killed when he swerved to avoid the stove on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim and was crushed by a cement truck.
The judge had instructed the jury that Wilkins, then 32, could be found guilty of murder if the fatal accident and the burglary were part of a “continuous transaction.” The jury convicted, and Wilkins was sentenced to 25 years to life.
The state high court overturned Wilkins’ conviction on the grounds the jury had not been instructed properly. If a perpetrator of a felony has already escaped and reached a “temporary place of safety,” any death he then causes is not felony murder, the court said.
The court ruled, given the evidence, there is a reasonable probability that a jury properly instructed would have concluded that defendant had reached a place of temporary safety before the fatal act occurred and was not guilty of felony murder.
Orange County prosecutors will now have to decide whether to retry Wilkins.
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