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Convictions Upheld for Three Who Turned Kid's Bday Into Bloodbath

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 12, 2015 10:55 AM

The Navarro, Arceo and Garcia families had a tough May in 2007. Not only did their Mother's Day end up in a brawl, a child's birthday party ended up as a stabbing party. That lead to the conviction of three relatives for murder.

Those convictions were upheld on Tuesday, when the state's 4th Appellate Court upheld their convictions in full, despite claims of 'legally impossible' jury instructions.

A Very Bad May

Samuel and Lizbeth Navarro lived in a converted barn outside San Diego, next to Luis Arceo, 16, and his family. At a Mother's Day party in 2007, a brawl broke out between Navarro, Arceo, Eric Garcia and several teenage friends, after a tasteless joke involving Lizbeth. At a birthday part for Arceo's sister several weeks later, tensions led to yelling which lead to fighting and finally stabbing, with two people left dead.

As the court notes, all the defendants were related. In an interesting piece of dicta, the court noted that Eric Garcia's sister was was Lizbeth, Navarro's girlfriend, which made Garcia "Navarro's de facto brother-in-law," according to the court. That's a pretty big jump, from girlfriend to wife, especially in a state that doesn't have common law marriage.

Garcia and Joseph Navarro were both found guilty of two counts of first degree murder and sentenced to 50 years to life. Samuel Navarro, who was also found guilty of two counts of first degree murder, was sentenced to life without parole.

Waived Provocation Instructions

On appeal, the defendants objected to the instructions given to the jury, among other issues. At trial, the jury was instructed that provocation can reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter. All defendants had requested a jury instruction which emphasized that the "weight and significant of the provocation, if any," was for the jury to decide. However, the court never mentioned this request directly, and defendant's did not object on the record.

The defendants' instruction is a "pinpoint instruction," not required by the law except on request, the court noted. When defense counsel did not press the issue, they withdrew their request.

Conspiracy to Commit an Attempt?

Similarly, the three defendants contended that the court erred in providing instructions on "the legally impossible theory of conspiracy to commit attempted murder." There is no such thing as a conspiracy to commit attempted murder, the court noted. A defendant cannot conspire to try to commit a crime, he can only conspire to actually commit it.

The error, however, was harmless. Though the instructions were wrong, the jury did not base its conviction on a theory of "conspiracy to commit attempted murder." Though the jury could have viewed the instructions as describing conspiracy to attempt murder, instead of to commit attempted murder, there would be no error.

A conspiracy to attempt murder is, unlike a conspiracy to commit attempted murder, not a legal impossibility. Even if the jury had got conspiracy entirely wrong, however, their ruling on multiple-murder special circumstances demonstrated that they thought the defendants were guilty of actual murder, not just conspiracy.

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