The state Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction Thursday of a burglar who was driving down a freeway with his loot when a stolen stove fell off his pickup truck and caused a fatal crash.
Cole Wilkins of Long Beach was convicted of first-degree murder on the grounds that he was still fleeing the scene of the burglary when the fatality occurred. He was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.
In granting Wilkins a new trial, the court ruled unanimously that the trial judge should have allowed the jury to decide whether Wilkins, who was 62 miles from the burglary scene, had reached a place of “temporary safety” and was no longer engaged in the burglary. That conclusion would clear him of first-degree murder, though he could be convicted of lesser homicide charges.
According to trial testimony, Wilkins took some large appliances from a home under construction in Riverside County late one night in July 2006, loaded them onto his pickup and drove off without securing the appliances to the truck bed.
Shortly before 5 a.m., the court said, a large stove fell off the truck bed and tumbled onto state Highway 91 in Anaheim. A motorist pulled Wilkins over, but he drove off again. Shortly afterward, another driver, David Piquette, swerved to avoid the stove and was fatally injured when his car hit a truck.
Wilkins was charged under a law that allows the perpetrator of a felony, such as burglary, to be convicted of first-degree murder when a killing is part of a “continuous transaction” with the original crime. That would include a death that the perpetrator caused while escaping.
But the court said an Orange County judge should have told the jury that Wilkins was no longer escaping if, at the time of the fatality, he had reached a place of temporary safety.
“There was no evidence that anyone was following him or that anyone was even aware of the burglary” at the time of the accident, said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in the court’s ruling.
Wilkins denied committing the burglary and said he had been given the appliances many hours earlier, Cantil-Sakauye said. And even under the prosecution’s version of events, the justice said, he had been driving at a normal speed for an hour, and a jury could conclude he was no longer fleeing.
Read the ruling in People vs. Wilkins, S190713, here.
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