United States v. Rodriguez

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 06-19-2014
  • Case #: No. 12-50121
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Rawlinson for the Court; Circuit Judge Gould and District Judge Lemelle
  • Full Text Opinion

Medical negligence can only be asserted as an affirmative defense in a murder trial in the event that the superseding act was extraordinary and unforeseeable, therefore breaking the logical chain of proximate cause, absolving the defendant(s) from murder.

Oscar Rodriguez (Rodriguez), Alejandro Mujica (Mujica), and Jose Murillo (Murillo) appeal their convictions of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Rodriguez, Mujica, and Murillo were serving prison sentences in California for reasons other than established by this case. The three plotted and executed the stabbing of a fellow inmate, Peter Scopazzi (Scopazzi). After Scopazzi was stabbed multiple times a breathing tube was placed in his throat, and then removed. The defendants argued that the removal of this breathing tube was the cause of Scopazzi’s death. However, the district court granted the State’s in limine motion to exclude medical negligence as a defense. On review, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling because the defense had failed to establish medical negligence in their case. The panel determined, based on Pineda-Doval, that in order for medical negligence to be found there must be an act caused by the defendant(s), then a superseding cause that is so unforeseeable and extraordinary that it would be “unfair to hold the defendant(s) responsible for the resulting death.” The panel concluded that based on the evidence presented at trial, it was not unforeseeable that a person who had been severely stabbed multiple times may die as a result. Additionally, it was not unforeseeable that the victim would be medically attended to, and still may be harmed or die in the process. Therefore, the panel found that the removal of Scopazzi’s breathing tube was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” The panel further explained that the removal of the tube may have been another cause of death, but did not constitute an unforeseeable and extraordinary cause of death. AFFIRMED.

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