Reversible Chiu Error: Not Clear Beyond A Reasonable Doubt That Jurors Rejected Natural and Probable Consequences Theory
August 22nd, 2016

People v. Brown (2016) 247 CA4th 211 reversed Brown’s first degree murder conviction in light of People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155.

The jury was instructed on three first degree murder theories: (1) Brown was the actual killer, (2) he aided and abetted the actual killer with the intent to kill, and (3) he aided and abetted fighting and a first degree murder was the natural and probable consequence of the fight. However, the the third theory — based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine — was invalid.

When the judge instructs a jury on multiple theories of guilt, one of which was legally incorrect, reversal is required unless there is a basis in the record to find that the verdict was based on a valid ground. [Citations.]” (People v. Chiu, supra, 59 Cal.4th at p. 167.) Because the defendant in Chiu was prosecuted on a direct aiding and abetting theory—the permissible theory—and as an aider and abettor under the natural and probable consequences theory—the legally impermissible theory—(id. at p. 158), and the court could not “conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury based its verdict on the legally valid theory,” reversal was required (id. at p. 167).

An instruction that relieves the prosecution of the obligation to establish a necessary element violates a defendant’s right to due process under the state and federal Constitutions, and is subject to harmless error analysis under [Chapman.] (People v. Cox (2000) 23 Cal.4th 665, 676–677.)

Accordingly, because the reviewing court in Brown could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that jury rejected natural and probable consequences doctrine as basis for first degree murder conviction the Chui error warranted reversal of the first degree murder conviction.

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