California Supreme Court mulls Tempongko domestic violence case—was it murder or manslaughter?

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SAN FRANCISCO–Should the killer of Claire Joyce Tempongko have been convicted of manslaughter and given a less severe sentence instead of murder, which carries a heavier penalty, because a lower court allegedly erred in instructing the jury on the distinction between murder and manslaughter?

The was the issue as the highly publicized domestic violence-related murder case of Tempongko, a 28-year-old Filipino American, went up for oral argument last Tuesday at the California Supreme Court.

The heated debate is over the interpretation of California Criminal Jury Instruction (CALCRIM) No. 570, in which the state of California allows a homicide to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter when the slaying occurs due to “a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”

In October 2000 Tempongko, a 28-year-old Filipino American, was stabbed more than ten times (17 by most accounts, 21 in one) and killed by former boyfriend Tare Beltran (alias Tare Ramirez) in front of her two children at her Richmond apartment. Beltran was not the father of her ten-year old son and five-year old daughter.

After the killing Beltran, a one-time dishwasher, fled to Mexico. He was arrested in 2006 and brought back to San Francisco. In 2008 Beltran was convicted of second-degree murder by the San Francisco Superior Court.

Wrong instruction?

But the Court of Appeals overturned the murder conviction in 2011 and ordered a new trial, saying errors were made in how the jury was instructed on the standard of murder/manslaughter.

The oral argument last Tuesday was whether the jury in 2008 should have been instructed to ask if there was sufficient provocation to cause an average person to want to kill, consequently making the defendant “act rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscured (his/her) reasoning or judgment,” to “act rashly and without deliberation . . . from passion rather than judgment.”

Beltran admitted to killing Tempongko with a kitchen knife. But he argued for voluntary manslaughter, which carries a 3-to-11 year prison sentence, instead of second-degree murder, which calls for 16 years to life in prison.

He said he was provoked to act and enraged when Tempongko told him she was pregnant with his child but had an abortion.

Beltran’s lawyer, Linda Leavitt, argued that “the question focused on result of conduct rather than the state of mind.” And that the defendant’s mind “was obscured (as a result of the provocation) and caused him to act irrationally.”

Also raised was the defendant’s intent. Could he have committed a “less brash act? Just cut her or disfigure her?”

But Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Laurence asked the Court to uphold the instructions given to the jury in 2008. Quoting from CALCRIM No. 570, Laurence argued, “The defendant is not allowed to set up his own standard of conduct.”

Furthermore, a report stating 17 slashes, four stabs to the victim’s torso and that she took time to die argued against intent “being turned on or off.”

Associate Justice Goodwin Liu commented that it is “not about intent . . . manslaughter is lethal.”

At argument’s end, the public was asked to leave the court. The Supreme Court will make its ruling three months after Tuesday. No cameras, recorders and cell phone were allowed in the packed courtroom where the justices sat en banc.

Evidence seems overwhelming

Nevertheless, the evidence against Beltran seems overwhelming. In 1999 he was charged twice for domestic violence and even went to jail. Tempongko called the police more than once when Beltran reportedly appeared at her apartment despite an order for him to stay away.

The Tempongko murder case is more than a cause célèbre for anti-domestic violence advocates. As a consequence, authorities were called out for failing to protect abuse victims, with the San Francisco Police Department being criticized for poor criminal record data management as far back as 2010.

As a result of a civil suit by the Tempongko family, the city awarded $500,000 to the victim’s two children in 2004.

The case contributed to heightened vigilance in the city against domestic violence, which in 2012 put newly elected San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi in really hot water for the videotaped bruises his wife suffered as a result of a domestic quarrel.

Outcry against domestic violence has intensified across the country as well. President Obama on March 7 signed into law an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act that expired in 2011.

The new law sets protection laws for the abused across state lines, a national hot line, shelters and housing assistance for those who fled from their homes. Also under the protection of the expanded Act are gays, transgenders and Native American women victimized on tribal lands by non-Indians. The same law protects undocumented aliens from being deported if they seek help.

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