At the Law Office of Jennifer Zide, We Help Our Clients Challenge a Wrongful Conviction.
If you have a concern about what happened in your criminal case and whether there is legal basis for an appeal, we are here for you. Even if you are convicted by a jury, the conviction could be wrongful under the law if it is not based on what is seen to be “substantial evidence” upon review. This is linked to our “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement for the level of evidence needed to support any criminal conviction. Through a thorough review and analysis in your case, we will make sure that your rights are protected. A legal deficiency in your case could result in a dismissal of your case on appeal, even after the fact of your conviction. Call us today to find out how we can help you achieve justice.
There are many potential bases for appeal of your criminal conviction based on a wrong that occurred during the trial. One common type of error that could benefit you on appeal is either defense counsel’s failure to bring a motion at trial, after the prosecution’s case is presented, that your case be dismissed, or the court’s error in failing to grant defense counsel’s motion that your case be dismissed.
Section 1118 of the Penal Code empowers defense counsel, at the end of the prosecution’s case and considering only evidence brought out up until that point, to make a motion that the case be dismissed due to insufficiency of the evidence produced. In evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence produced, the state of the evidence is reviewed from the point where it stood at the close of the prosecution’s case-in-chief. People v. Houston (2012) 54 Cal.4th 1186, 1215, citing People v. Cole (2004) 33 Cal.4th 1158, 1213. The court must determine “‘whether from the evidence, including reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom, there is any substantial evidence of the existence of each element of the offense charged.” (People v. Lines (1975) 13 Cal.3d 500, 505.) The role of the reviewing court is to examine the record in the light most favorable to the judgment to determine whether substantial evidence exists. The courts have found that “substantial evidence” is evidence which is “reasonable, credible, and of solid value – from which a reasonable trier of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” (People v. Maciel (2013) 57 Cal.4th 482, 514-515.) Other courts commenting on the standard have explained the reviewing court must determine whether “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” (People v. Maciel (2013) 57 Cal.4th 482, 515, citing Jackson v. Virginia (1979) 443 U.S. 307, 319; People v. Smith (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 1458, 1469, citing People v. Brown (1995) 35 Cal.App.4th 1585, 1598.) This requires the court to presume facts that could be reasonably deduced from the evidence (emphasis added). (People v. Kraft (2000) 23 Cal.4th 978, 1053.) The remedy for an erroneous denial of an 1118 motion is a dismissal of the charges; appellant cannot be retried. (Burks v. United States (1978) 437 U.S. 1, 16; Green v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 184, 187-188; People v. Trevino (1985) 39 Cal.3d 667, 699, quoting Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. at p. 17.)
Evaluating Whether You Have a Good Argument about the Deficiency of Evidence in Your Case Requires a Thorough Review of the Trial Record.
Courts have repeatedly found that mere presence at or near the scene of a crime, even when combined with physical evidence such as fingerprints, is not sufficient to support a conviction. The court made clear in People v. Foster that mere presence at the scene is an inadequate basis upon which to infer guilt. In People v. Foster (1953) 115 Cal.App.2d 866, a possession of narcotics case, officers saw a package containing drug paraphernalia and heroin thrown from the right front window of a car in which three defendants were riding in the front seat. (Id. at 867.) Appellant was one of those people in the car; however, the court expressly found that “mere presence at the scene of the crime standing alone is not sufficient to justify a finding of guilt.” (Foster at 868, citing People v. Le Grant, 76 Cal.App.2d 148, 153.) As the court held in Foster, “we cannot agree that any person should be convicted of a crime on such a tenuous theory.” The court reversed and ordered a new trial as to that defendant. Foster parallels the facts of a case in which the heart of the evidence offered against our client is simply being near the scene of the crime.
It is also important to note that, even in cases where fingerprints have been found at a crime scene, those prints may be insufficient proof of guilt, since they show mere presence. In People v. Trevino (1985) 39 Cal.3d 667, the defendant had been a guest in the victim’s home. The issue was whether the presence of a fingerprint of the defendant at the scene of the crime, in combination with a sighting of the defendant with the victim before the crime, adequately supported the conviction. The court held there that the circumstantial evidence, in combination, did not rise to anything more than suspicion. “The evidence as to how or when the print came to be placed on the dresser is fraught with uncertainty, leaving the triers of fact to speculate as to how and when the print was made. This kind of guesswork as to the facts does not elevate speculation to the level of reasonable inference.” (emphasis added) (Id. at 697.) The Trevino court held that this level of evidence did not constitute evidence which is “reasonable, credible and of solid value such that a reasonable trier of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” (emphasis added) (Id. at 697, citing Johnson 26 Cal.3d at p. 578.) Because the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law, the defendant was entitled to a judgment of acquittal when he made his initial section 1118.1 motion. The facts of Trevino may be very similar to other factual scenarios in which an appellant is present near the scene of the crime, but without having any evidence of crime or paraphernalia associated with criminal activity in his possession.
Another common area for a possible appeal is the case where the trial judge allows into evidence proof of a prior conviction, such that the person on trial suffers unfair prejudice as a result. This past conviction may cause the jury to confuse the issues and to instead think that it must be more likely the defendant committed the current offense simply because of his past conviction – rather than fully and truly evaluating the facts of the case now before them to determine whether that offense has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A past conviction may be admissible for the purpose of evaluating the defendant’s potential credibility in the case where it is a conviction having bearing on so-called “moral turpitude” or tendency to lie. All theft convictions, for instance, are considered crimes of moral turpitude. If the past conviction is a felony conviction, it may be admissible for the limited purpose of shedding light on the defendant’s so-called “tendency” to lie. But what about the case where a past conviction occurred fifteen or twenty years ago, a so-called “remote prior conviction”, and the defendant has since then turned his life around and done very well? What about the possibility of personal change? At what point does that past conviction become less relevant on the issue of the defendant’s present credibility? Under the law, this calls for a second step of balancing the evidence, evidence which is otherwise admissible, to determine if the so-called “prejudicial” effect will outweigh its “probative value,” or value for the one, limited purpose for which it is admissible.
These are just two of the potential issues that can be investigated and argued on appeal in a criminal case. What evidence was presented against you or a loved one at trial? To what extent was there physical evidence, and, if so, what kind? Instead of physical evidence, did the prosecution rely primarily on the word of alleged witnesses or others? Was the main piece of evidence offered against you simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Identifying and arguing any of these issues – from prosecutorial misconduct to error in a court’s ruling, to past defense counsel’s error or failure to litigate a valid issue at trial – requires a thorough review of the record and a skilled analysis of the potential grounds for appeal. At the Law Office of Jennifer Zide, your appeal, and getting you justice in your case, is our passion. We will bring to your case the highest level of dedication and professional service and pursue the justice you deserve.
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