Murderer's conviction upheld in Supreme CourtWritten by Press Release
(JOG) - Today, the Supreme Court of Guam, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Robert J. Torres and joined by Justice Katherine A. Maraman and Justice F. Philip Carbullido, decided the appeal in the case of People v. John, 2016 Guam 41. Xo Isi John was convicted of one count of murder related to the death of Felipe Aldan Reyes, Jr. in the early morning hours of February 17, 2015. On appeal, John argued that the trial court committed reversible error in (i) admitting into evidence testimony regarding his prior acts in violation of Guam Rule of Evidence (“GRE”) 404; (ii) inaccurately instructing the jury regarding the issue of self-defense; and (iii) refusing to instruct the jury regarding the Castle Doctrine as adopted by Guam at 9 GCA §§ 7.111-7.114. John also argued that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to object when the trial court charged the jury without including an instruction related to the Castle Doctrine. The People opposed each of John’s arguments on appeal. The Supreme Court affirmed the Judgment of Conviction, holding that the trial court did not commit reversible error and that John was not denied effective assistance of counsel.
First, the Supreme Court addressed John’s argument that the trial court improperly admitted certain testimony regarding an incident in which John previously hit the victim and other instances in which John made violent threats while he was intoxicated. The Supreme Court held that testimony regarding John previously hitting Reyes was not admitted in error because defense counsel opened the door to testimony on this topic during the cross-examination of a witness. With respect to testimony regarding John’s intoxicated threats of violence, the Supreme Court held that this testimony fell within the scope of GRE 404(b) under the Hinton test, which was adopted by the Supreme Court in previous cases such as People v. Camaddu, 2015 Guam 2. The Supreme Court further held that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting this evidence when it failed to engage in a balancing test to determine whether this testimony was more prejudicial than probative. This error was harmless, however, because it did not affect the jury’s verdict, as the testimony indicating John’s guilt was overwhelming.
Second, the Supreme Court held that the trial court committed a clear error under current law when it instructed the jury regarding the issue of self-defense. The trial in this case occurred prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in the case People v. Gargarita, 2015 Guam 28, which held that it was error for a trial court to instruct the jury on self-defense without also instructing that a failure by the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt must lead to an acquittal. The trial court in this case committed the same error as the trial court in Gargarita. The Supreme Court, however, distinguished Gargarita on the basis the error in this case did not affect John’s substantial rights; unlike the defendant in Gargarita, John could not meet his burden on appeal to prove that but for this erroneous instruction he would have been acquitted. Numerous witnesses provided testimony that undermined John’s claim of self-defense. The evidence overwhelmingly showed that John used force far above what could be considered reasonable in proportion to the threat that he allegedly faced and the jury was properly entitled to reject any evidence to the contrary. Because John could not establish that he would have been acquitted had the jury been properly instructed, his substantial rights were not affected and his conviction was therefore not overturned on this basis.
Third, the Supreme Court considered whether the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury regarding the Castle Doctrine on the basis that the struggle between John and Reyes purportedly occurred on the porch of John’s residence. Under the Castle Doctrine, a person has no duty to retreat in the face of aggression by another when they are in their own “business, residence, or occupied vehicle.” In reviewing the plain text and legislative history of 8 GCA §§ 7.111-7.114, Guam’s statutory adoption of the Castle Doctrine, the Supreme Court held that the “porch” of a “residence” does not come within the scope of the statute. The trial court therefore did not commit error in refusing to instruct the jury regarding the Castle Doctrine.
Fourth, the Supreme Court held that John was not denied effective assistance of counsel as a result of his trial counsel’s failure to object to the exclusion of jury instructions regarding the Castle Doctrine because this issue was sufficiently preserved for appellate purposes and the trial court did not err in refusing to so instruct the jury.
For these reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed John’s conviction in its entirety.