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Soto v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 16, 2018

SOTO
v.
THE STATE.

          PETERSON, JUSTICE.

         Armando Soto appeals his convictions for malice murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Angelica Robledo.[1] Soto argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his malice murder conviction, the trial court erred in failing to charge on the lesser included offenses of reckless conduct and terroristic threats, and the trial court erred in denying his motions in limine to exclude the victim's statements about being harassed by a dangerous man and to exclude evidence about his immigration status. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support Soto's convictions and that the trial court did not err in refusing to charge on the lesser included offenses. We also conclude that any evidence that was admitted as a result of the trial court's allegedly erroneous denial of Soto's motions in limine did not affect the outcome of the trial. Therefore, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury verdicts, the trial evidence showed the following. The victim, Angelica Robledo, was estranged from her husband when she began working for Soto installing carpet. Soto pursued a romantic relationship with Robledo and harassed and threatened her. Soto routinely followed her in his white van, bumped her car from behind at least once, pointed a gun at her after she got off of work, called her incessantly, and told her that she would not be with anyone if she would not be with him. He also scratched an epithet onto Robledo's car, causing more than $500 in damage.

         Robledo told her friends and cousin about the harassment and threats. Robledo told one friend, Juan Arriaga, about some of the incidents, but she refused to identify the assailant to Arriaga or make a police report. Robledo also declined to contact the police due to her immigration status. Instead of contacting the police, Robledo changed her phone number and asked roommates to meet her outside her residence when she got off work.

         On the morning of December 29, 2009, Robledo called Arriaga for a ride so that she could pay her car insurance. After Robledo made the payment, Arriaga drove her to work. When they arrived in the parking lot, Soto was waiting in his white van. Robledo told Arriaga that the driver of the van was the person who had been following and threatening her and that the driver was obsessed with her and wanted to be her boyfriend. Nervous, Robledo asked Arriaga to drop her off right in front of the store where she worked. When Robledo got out of the vehicle, Soto pulled in front of Arriaga's vehicle and began shooting at Robledo. She was hit six times, including several times in the back. Soto then fired at Arriaga, hitting the door and the front of Arriaga's vehicle. Arriaga ducked down and drove away, hitting several cars in the parking lot.

         Police responded to the shooting and found Arriaga injured and Robledo unresponsive. Robledo was taken to a hospital, where she died as a result of her gunshot wounds. A number of .380 shell casings and a .380 bullet were recovered from the crime scene, a .380 bullet was found on the gurney on which the Robledo was transported to the hospital, and a .380 bullet was later removed from Robledo's body during the autopsy. The police put out a BOLO for a person matching Soto's description and his white van.

         Meanwhile, Soto went home to pack a few items before leaving Atlanta and driving west through Alabama and Mississippi. A Mississippi police officer who received the BOLO report later stopped and arrested Soto. Police searched the van and found a Llama .380 handgun, .380 rounds, and three shell casings. A GBI firearm examiner determined that the .380 shell casings and bullets recovered from the crime scene and autopsy were fired from Soto's Llama .380 handgun.

         Soto testified at trial and said that he and Robledo had been dating for about three years until her death. Soto admitted shooting Robledo, but disputed that he shot her in the back. He claimed that he shot Robledo because she meant everything to him and he became jealous and angry after seeing her embrace and kiss another man. Soto denied ever threatening Robledo and claimed that he supported her financially and would follow her home at her request after she had been drinking because she was afraid of being stopped by the police. Soto also claimed that he shot at Arriaga because he thought Arriaga was leaning down to retrieve a gun.

         1. The evidence was sufficient to sustain Soto's convictions.

         Soto argues that the evidence supported only a conviction for voluntary manslaughter, not malice murder, because he shot at Robledo only upon becoming overwhelmed with jealousy after seeing her embrace and kiss another man. He argues that the State's claim that he lay in wait and planned the murder meticulously was belied by surveillance video showing that the events happened quickly and by evidence that he left Atlanta with little money and made no effort to disguise himself.

         Voluntary manslaughter requires some evidence that the defendant acted "solely as the result of a sudden, violent, and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation sufficient to excite such passion in a reasonable person[.]" OCGA § 16-5-2 (a). Although sexual jealousy can be provocation sufficient to warrant a conviction for manslaughter even where the defendant and the victim are not married, see Culmer v. State, 282 Ga. 330, 335 (4) (647 S.E.2d 30) (2007), it is for the jury to determine whether the actions alleged to have provoked the defendant actually occurred and whether these actions were sufficient provocation to excite the deadly passion of a reasonable person. See Clough v. State, 298 Ga. 594, 596-597 (2) (783 S.E.2d 637) (2016). Even if there were some provocation, however, it is not enough that "the provocation was sufficient to excite the deadly passion in the particular defendant"; this is both a subjective and objective standard, as the jury must also conclude that the provocation would excite a reasonable person. Bailey v. State, 301 Ga. 476, 480 (IV) (801 S.E.2d 813) (2017).

         It is undisputed that Soto intentionally shot Robledo. Although Soto claims that he shot Robledo because he was driven into a rage by seeing the woman he loved embrace and kiss another man, Arriaga testified that he did not have a romantic relationship with Robledo and that she merely shook his hand before exiting his vehicle. But even if Arriaga and Robledo did embrace and kiss, the jury was nevertheless authorized to conclude that such provocation would not have excited a reasonable person to kill. Given the evidence, including evidence of prior difficulties between Soto and Robledo, the jury was authorized to conclude that Soto was not acting solely as the result of a sudden, violent, and irresistible passion, but that he shot Robledo with malice.

         To the extent Soto also challenges his conviction for aggravated assault of Arriaga, [2] the evidence was also legally sufficient. Soto now claims that the act of shooting at Arriaga was merely negligent, and thus constituted either reckless conduct or terroristic acts, because he only shot at Arriaga's truck in an attempt to scare Arriaga so that Soto could flee. But Soto's testimony was that he intentionally fired at Arriaga either to repel an attack or to scare Arriaga so that Soto could escape. And he concedes that his actions as to Robledo at least constituted voluntary manslaughter, a felony. That precludes Soto from claiming self-defense, because a person is not justified in using force when he is fleeing after the commission or attempted commission of a felony. See OCGA § 16-3-21 (b) (2). As a result, and as we explain in more detail in Division 2 below, the jury was authorized to conclude that Soto's intentional firing at Arriaga constituted the offense of aggravated assault. See Anthony v. State, 298 Ga. 827, 829 (1) (785 S.E.2d 277) (2016).

         2. The trial court did not err in denying Soto's requested charges on reckless conduct and ...


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