Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Facebook Admissibility — Victim’s Facebook Post 2 Hours Before His Death in Gunfight That He Was Resuming Gang Life, Including Murder, Properly Excluded from Trial on Issue of Who Fired First — Rule 403 Analysis (Cal. Evid. Code352)

People v. Cornejo, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 424 (Cal. Ct. App. May 25, 2016):

Deandre Ellison was shot to death as he drove into his driveway in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood of Sacramento. Four other men, including Latrele Neal, were also in Ellison's car. Before the car came to a stop in the driveway, an SUV driven by Jesse Cornejo slowly drove past Ellison's house; the SUV's front and backseat passengers, Adam Cornejo and Isaac Vasquez, opened fire on Ellison's car.1 Neal managed to return fire with Ellison's gun before [*2]  the SUV drove away. About 20 bullets were exchanged between the vehicles. Bullets also struck Ellison's house. Ellison was the only casualty. After crashing the SUV while being pursued by law enforcement, Adam, Jesse, and Isaac were taken into custody a short time later. Each was a Norteño gang member. Isaac was 16 years old with a developmental disability; Adam and Jesse were 17 and 18 years old, respectively.

1   Because Adam and Jesse Cornejo have the same last name, we refer to them by their first names; for consistency, we also refer to Isaac Vasquez by his first name.

Adam, Jesse, and Isaac were tried together and convicted by jury of one count of second-degree murder (Pen. Code, § 187, Count One),2 four counts of attempted murder (§§ 664/187, Counts Two, Three, Four, and Five), and one count of shooting at an inhabited dwelling (§ 246, Count Six). Jesse was also convicted of one count of driving in willful or wanton disregard for safety while fleeing from a pursuing peace officer. (Veh. Code, § 2800.2, subd. (a), Count Seven.) With respect to the murder, the jury found the offense was committed by means of shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle at another person outside the vehicle with the intent to inflict great bodily injury. [*3]  (§ 190, subd. (d).) The jury also found the crimes were committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by gang members. (§ 186.22, subd. (b).) Various firearm enhancement allegations were also found to be true. (§§ 12022.53, subds. (c), (d), (e)(1), 12022.5, subd. (a).) The trial court sentenced Adam and Isaac to serve an aggregate indeterminate prison term of 120 years to life plus a consecutive determinate term of 9 years 4 months. Jesse was sentenced to serve the same indeterminate term of 120 years to life plus a consecutive determinate term of 10 years.

2   Undesignated statutory references are to the Penal Code.


Exclusion of Defense Evidence

Defendants claim the trial court prejudicially [*39]  erred and violated their constitutional right to due process by excluding evidence of a post made to Ellison's Facebook page on the day of the shooting, which they argue indicated Ellison "had reentered gang life" and "was associating with gang members." According to defendants, this evidence was highly probative of their defense, i.e., Ellison was killed in self-defense after Neal opened fire on them, because "the people in Ellison's car had the same motivations to shoot first as the gang expert attributed to [defendants]." Defendants also claim the excluded evidence "would [have] support[ed] the defense contention that Ellison drove his car in a way to force [defendants] to stop in front of his house" and "would [have] rebut[ted] [Boyd's] testimony that Ellison only purchased the gun because he was afraid of being attacked because he was cooperating with the police."


Additional Background

Jesse moved in limine to introduce a printout from Ellison's Facebook page that included a post made around two hours before the murder. The post stated: "GET MONEY TRUST NOT A SOUL MONEY AND MURDER I SWEAR IM BACK AT IT AGAIN WHO CAN I TRUST IN THIS WORLD???????????????????? GET ACTIVE." The printout also included [*40]  Ellison's profile picture, in which he was apparently making a gang sign with his hands.

Jesse's trial counsel argued the post was relevant to show Ellison's state of mind at the time of the shooting, i.e., he and the other occupants of the Taurus "were expecting to get hit" and "were expecting trouble," which he argued was "very probative of who fired first." Counsel also argued the post was admissible despite the hearsay rule because it qualified as a statement of Ellison's then-existing state of mind and a statement against penal interest. Counsel further argued Boyd [Ellison’s wife], who also had access to Ellison's Facebook account, could authenticate the post. Isaac's attorney joined in these arguments.

In response, the prosecutor did not object to the profile picture being admitted, but argued defense counsel was attempting to "circumvent the hearsay rules and circumvent the foundational requirements" by seeking to admit the Facebook post. With respect to hearsay, the prosecutor did not actually make an argument. With respect to foundation, the prosecutor questioned whether counsel would be able to establish Ellison "did in fact, make that entry."

After further argument from defense counsel, the [*41]  trial court took the matter under submission.

Trial began without a ruling on admissibility of the Facebook post. The following exchange occurred during Jesse's cross-examination of Neal:

"Q Did you also say that [Ellison] don't even gang bang no more?

"A Yes, I did say that. He did not gang bang anymore.

"Q You don't know -- you say you know that for a fact?

"A I know that for a fact. [¶] He got married and he was a family -- was a family man. He was changing his life. His grandma had just passed away. He had just got saved. [¶] He was -- he was a totally different dude that I know from growin' up with. I know for a fact he did not gang bang anymore.

"Q Did you ever go on his Facebook page?

"A Yes, I did.

"Q When was the last time you went on his Facebook page?

"A Um, I been on there after he was killed. I been on there before he was killed."

At this point, counsel again sought to admit the Facebook post, arguing the post was admissible under Evidence Code section 780 as evidence tending to disprove the truthfulness of Neal's testimony that Ellison was no longer "gang banging." The trial court ruled the post inadmissible under Evidence Code section 352, as requiring the jury to "embark on . . . something that's a bit of a side show, and that [*42]  is the question of whether or not [Neal] believes [Ellison] was involved as a gang banger at the time." The trial court then instructed the jury to disregard Neal's "opinions as to whether or not [Ellison] was or was not involved actively as a member of a gang."



We first note neither Jesse's trial counsel, nor counsel of either co-defendant, pressed for a ruling on the matter of whether or not the Facebook post was admissible as substantive evidence Neal fired first, prompting Adam and Isaac to return fire in self-defense. (See People v. Braxton (2004) 34 Cal.4th 798, 813-814 [failure to press for a ruling generally forfeits contention of error].) Indeed, Adam's trial counsel did not join in the argument in the first place. (See People v. Wilson, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 793 [failure to join in the objection or motion of a codefendant generally forfeits the issue on appeal].) When the matter of the Facebook post was revisited during Jesse's cross-examination of Neal, counsel sought to admit the evidence to impeach Neal's testimony that Ellison was no longer a gang member, but did not indicate to the trial court he was also pressing for a ruling on whether the evidence was admissible to prove self-defense. Thus, the trial court ruled the Facebook post was not admissible [*43]  to impeach Neal under an Evidence Code section 352 analysis. The trial court never ruled on the initial motion to admit this evidence to prove self-defense, nor did any of the defendants press the trial court to do so. By failing to press for a ruling--and in Adam's case, by failing to join in the argument altogether--defendants have forfeited their now-joint contention the trial court prejudicially erred and violated their due process rights by excluding the proffered evidence.


Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Anticipating forfeiture, Jesse argues his trial counsel rendered constitutionally deficient assistance by failing to "explicitly argue that the fact that Ellison had returned to an active gang life would tend to show that he and his associates . . . were just as likely to fire first as were Jesse and his associates." Adam and Isaac join in this argument as well, which we interpret as arguing their respective counsel were equally ineffective.

A criminal defendant has the right to the assistance of counsel under both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 15, of the California Constitution. (People v. Ledesma (1987) 43 Cal.3d 171, 215.) This right "entitles the defendant not to some bare assistance but rather to effective assistance. [Citations.] Specifically, it entitles him [or her] to 'the reasonably competent [*44]  assistance of an attorney acting as his [or her] diligent conscientious advocate.' [Citations.]" (Ibid., quoting United States v. DeCoster (D.C.Cir. 1973) 487 F.2d 1197, 1202.) "'In order to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must first show counsel's performance was "deficient" because his [or her] "representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness . . . under prevailing professional norms." [Citations.] Second, he [or she] must also show prejudice flowing from counsel's performance or lack thereof. [Citation.] Prejudice is shown when there is a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."'" (In re Harris (1993) 5 Cal.4th 813, 832-833; accord, Strickland v. Washington (1984) 466 U.S. 668, 687 [80 L.Ed.2d 674, 693].) The burden of proving a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is squarely upon the defendant. (People v. Camden (1976) 16 Cal.3d 808, 816.)

Defendants have not carried their burden. Even assuming (1) counsel would have been able to establish Ellison in fact made the post to his Facebook page, (2) the post indeed meant Ellison had decided to return to an active gang lifestyle, (3) defendants are correct that the Facebook post was relevant to establish (a) Neal was just [*45]  as likely to have fired first as were Adam and Isaac, (b) Ellison likely drove the Taurus in between the first car and the Explorer in order to force defendants to stop in front of his house, and (c) contrary to Boyd's testimony, Ellison did not purchase the handgun solely because he was afraid of being attacked for having cooperated with the police, and (4) the post was not inadmissible hearsay because it evidenced Ellison's then-existing state of mind, we cannot conclude exclusion of this evidence would have been an abuse of discretion under Evidence Code section 352 or a violation of their constitutional right to due process.

Evidence Code section 352 provides: "The court in its discretion may exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will (a) necessitate undue consumption of time or (b) create substantial danger of undue prejudice, of confusing the issues, or of misleading the jury." Our Supreme Court has explained this section "permits the trial judge to strike a careful balance between the probative value of the evidence and the danger of prejudice, confusion and undue time consumption," but "requires that the danger of these evils substantially outweigh the probative [*46]  value of the evidence." (People v. Lavergne (1971) 4 Cal.3d 735, 744; see also People v. Holford (2012) 203 Cal.App.4th 155, 168.) Rulings under this provision "come within the trial court's discretion and will not be overturned absent an abuse of that discretion." (People v. Minifie (1996) 13 Cal.4th 1055, 1070.)

Here, the Facebook post was minimally probative of defendants' claim of self-defense. Even assuming the post established in the jurors' minds that Ellison possessed the gun, not simply for protection, but also for gang purposes, i.e., confrontation, and Ellison deliberately cut off the Explorer while pulling into his driveway, neither fact would justify defendants' actions of opening fire on Ellison's car. The only purported fact that would justify such an assault is Neal's firing at the Explorer first, or at the very least, pointing Ellison's gun in defendants' direction, and thereby causing a reasonable belief in the need to employ deadly force in self-defense. But the Facebook post was made by Ellison, not Neal. There is no dispute Neal was the one who fired Ellison's gun. Indeed, Ellison was apparently hit before he could put the car in park. Ellison's post was therefore relevant on the issue of Neal's conduct only if Neal was aware of the post. In other words, Ellison's decision to return to gang life, [*47]  by itself, does not tend to prove anything about Neal. However, Neal's belief Ellison was out of the gang life would tend to make it less likely that he would take it upon himself to use Ellison's gun to fire upon another vehicle in front of Ellison's house had occupants of that vehicle not fired first. Conversely, Neal's belief Ellison had returned to the gang life would tend to make his firing first in these circumstances more likely. But how much more likely? We conclude the answer is "not much." The evidence established Ellison had offered testimony against a rival gang member, had been threatened for having done so, and was pulling into his driveway when the shooting occurred. In these circumstances, regardless of whether Ellison had decided to return to the gang lifestyle, and regardless of whether Neal was aware of this decision, opening fire on an Explorer full of gang members in front of Ellison's house, and in a driveway with no means of escape when the occupants of the Explorer predictably returned fire, is so unlikely as to be implausible.

Weighing against this low level of probative value is the reality that admission of the evidence would have required a significant consumption [*48]  of time. The defense would have been required to establish what we have assumed in our analysis thus far, i.e., the post was in fact made by Ellison, the post indeed meant Ellison had returned to an active gang lifestyle, and Neal was aware of his return to this lifestyle. In light of the minimal probative value of the evidence, we cannot conclude the trial court would have abused its discretion by excluding the evidence under an Evidence Code section 352 analysis. Nor are we persuaded such a decision would have amounted to a deprivation of due process. While defendants are correct to point out Evidence Code section 352 "must bow to the due process right of a defendant to a fair trial and his [or her] right to present all relevant evidence of significant probative value to his [or her] defense[,] . . . the proffered evidence must have more than slight relevancy to the issues presented. [Citation.]" (People v. Burrell--Hart (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 593, 599; People v. Reeder (1978) 82 Cal.App.3d 543, 553.) Here, as we have already explained, the Facebook post did not have significant probative value.

In sum, because admission of the Facebook post would have necessitated an undue consumption of time and the post was not significantly probative of defendants' claim of self-defense, the trial court would not have abused [*49]  its discretion or violated defendants' due process rights by excluding the evidence under Evidence Code section 352 had defendants' respective counsel pressed for a ruling on the matter. Thus, regardless of whether reasonable counsel would have pressed for such a ruling, our confidence in the outcome is not undermined.

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