SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a man who stole appliances and caused a fatal accident 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, who was driving to work from his home in Corona, was crushed by a cement truck after he swerved to avoid the stove on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim.
The judge had instructed the jury that Wilkins, then 32, could be found guilty of murder if the burglary and the fatal accident 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 prosecution did not dispute that at the time of the accident the burglary had not yet been discovered, and defendant was at least 60 miles and one hour from the crime scene, had made a telephone call a half-hour earlier, and had been driving at a normal speed," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for a unanimous court.
"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.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Steven T. Oetting complained the court had created a "new rule" that would reduce criminals' culpability. He said Wilkins did not tie down the appliances after burglarizing a home under construction because he wanted to get away from the crime scene as fast as possible.
"He is not just some guy who just failed to secure his load," Oetting said. "The reason he failed to secure his load is because of the burglary, and this ruling fails to take this into account."
Richard A. Levy, who represented Wilkins on appeal, called the ruling a clarification of existing law and "absolutely the correct decision."