An appeals court today upheld death sentences for two gang members, who were both convicted of a double murder during an attempted robbery in the summer of 1997. Attorneys for Joseph Mora and Ruben Rangel argued more than 20 issues on appeal. California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal denied all but one, related to a jury instruction about multiple murders, which it cited as a “harmless” error because of the “overwhelming evidence” supporting the jury panel’s conclusions.
On the evening of Aug. 24, 1997, victims Andy Encinas and Jose Urrutia and a third man left a party to help Encinas’ girlfriend with a flat tire on her car. Once the tire was repaired, the girlfriend drove to Compton to drop off one of her friends and the men followed behind in a Toyota 4Runner. In Compton, Mora and Rangel approached members of the group, demanded that Encinas and Urrutia turn over their wallets and then shot them inside Encinas’ SUV, leaving the third man alive in the back seat.
A summary of the crime included in the majority opinion by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar stated that the two defendants had been at a house on the same street prior to the murders, drinking beer and snorting methamphetamine. After the shooting, they ran back to the house, bragging about what they’d done, with Rangel saying he would have fired more shots if his gun hadn’t jammed.
The two were identified by multiple witnesses, including neighbors, during a field lineup.
Their attorneys argued that delayed delivery of discovery documents left them unable to effectively use the information at trial and should have led to a mistrial. The appeals court found that the number of delays was cause for concern, but found no reasonable probability that the results of the trial would have been different even if the information were made available on a timely basis.
Justice Goodwin Liu dissented from the majority opinion as to one issue, agreeing with defense attorneys that there was insufficient evidence of the special circumstance allegation of murder committed during an attempted robbery.
“(To) prove a felony-murder special-circumstance allegation, the prosecution must show that the defendant had an independent purpose for the commission of the felony, that is, the commission of the felony was not merely incidental to an intended murder,” Liu cited People v. Horning (2004).
“The prosecution had to prove that the crime was `a murder in the commission of robbery’ and not `a robbery in the commission of a murder,”’ Liu wrote. There was enough evidence that the defendants intended to rob their
victims, but not that they murdered them in order to rob them, the justice concluded. Rangel told Encinas “check yourself, check yourself, give me your wallet” and Mora also asked for Utturia’s wallet, however, the victims tried
to comply, were shot before they could do so and the killers ran off without the wallets. Liu said he would have reversed the attempted robbery special circumstance but still would affirm the death sentence because of the valid finding on the special circumstance of multiple murder.