Eddie Ramon Salazar had never met Willie Kirkpatrick before the night of September 17, 1983, when he agreed to accompany Kirkpatrick on a robbery of a Burbank Taco Bell.
Salazar, known as "Solo" to fellow members of the Sol Trece or Sun (Valley) 13 Latino street gang, acted as a lookout while Kirkpatrick held up the fast food restaurant at gunpoint.
While admitting that Salazar participated in the robbery, a defense attorney contends that the defendant remained outside the restaurant throughout the robbery. The defense and the prosecution agree that the 20-year-old Salazar was caught by surprise when Kirkpatrick suddenly forced two Taco Bell employees into a small closet in the rear of the restaurant and shot them execution-style, a single bullet to the back of the head.
One of the victims, a 27-year-old North Hollywood man, was pronounced dead at the scene. The other, a 16-year-old high school student, died in a hospital 11 days later. They were the only witnesses to the crime.
Kirkpatrick, a 23-year-old transient and former employee of the Taco Bell restaurant, was convicted of first-degree murder in Pasadena Superior Court in June, 1984. Pasadena Superior Court Judge Coleman Swart, noting that the murders were committed during a felony robbery, later sentenced Kirkpatrick to death.
Now, in a case that could further test a controversial law known as the felony murder rule, the state also is seeking a first-degree murder conviction against Salazar, a native of Pacoima. Traceable to 16th-Century English law and observed in California since 1872, the felony murder rule holds that a felon can be prosecuted for murder if deaths result from the acts of an accomplice.
Even while acknowledging that Salazar neither intended the killings to take place nor did anything directly to cause them, the state is seeking a first-degree murder conviction on the theory that the robbery and murder were essentially one indivisible act.
Proof of Intent
In such cases, the state need not prove malice or intent to kill as required in ordinary murders, according to the district attorney's office. Prosecutors must simply show that Salazar intended to commit the robbery that led to the killings.
In a motion submitted to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, defense attorney Donald H. Steier contends that a first-degree murder conviction for Salazar's role in the underlying felony would result in a disproportionate sentence, thus violating the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In an attempt to chip away at the felony murder rule, Steier's motion further argues that Salazar's guilt is different from that of Kirkpatrick, who intended to kill, and to treat the two men alike would violate the principle that people are accountable only for their own acts.
Salazar, now 23, has been been held in County Jail for nearly two years awaiting trial.
In addition to two counts of first-degree murder, he is charged with two counts of robbery and one count of burglary.
"He had been nowhere near the murder but was in fact waiting for Kirkpatrick outside the premises," Steier said in an interview. "He had no knowledge that Kirkpatrick would act so unexpectedly and was in fact shocked at the events which occurred. . . . Eddie couldn't prevent the disaster."
Prosecutors are reluctant to comment extensively on the case until transcripts from a preliminary hearing last January are formally submitted to the court. At the preliminary hearing, the court found sufficient evidence to order Salazar to stand trial. Steier said he will not contest Salazar's role in the robbery. Salazar has not entered a plea on any of the charges.
In lieu of a trial, the defense and prosecution have agreed to allow the judge to determine Salazar's guilt or innocence based only on the preliminary hearing transcripts and transcripts from Kirkpatrick's trial. Defense and prosecuting attorneys say that if the judge finds Salazar guilty of the robbery, under the felony murder rule he must also find him guilty of first-degree murder. The case would then proceed to sentencing, where arguments for and against sentencing required under the felony murder rule would be heard.
If the court were to agree with Steier's contention that the felony murder rule should not be applied and that Salazar is guilty only of voluntary manslaughter, it could impose a lesser sentence than the 25 years to life required for a felony murder conviction. Steier expects to appeal the case if the court imposes the harsher sentence for felony murder.
"We don't think the robbery and the murder were two separate events," Deputy Dist. Atty. Loren Naiman said. "The murder occurred during the course of the robbery. A first-degree murder conviction and a sentence under the felony murder rule are clearly justified in this case."
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