Felony murder conviction reversed on appeal for man whose wife jumped from moving truck

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Third District court of appeal last week reversed a Sacramento County man’s conviction for felony murder after his wife jumped from his truck during a domestic dispute.

“After reviewing the legislative history of Senate Bill 1437 and decisional authority interpreting the term ‘actual killer,’ we agree that the defendant’s first-degree felony murder conviction and special-circumstance finding rests on an invalid legal theory,” Associate Justice Peter Krause wrote for the court in a 42-page opinion.

Jerry Vang was convicted based on a jury instruction that said that if he was found guilty of intentional kidnapping – and that his wife died in the course of the kidnapping – he was guilty of first-degree felony murder.

The court found that, under the felony murder rule amended in Senate Bill 1437, defendants can only be liable for felony murder if they are found to be the “actual killer”, and since Vue jumped from the car on her own volition, the conviction was improper. Attorney General Bonta’s office argued that the term should be given broad interpretation, while Vang’s attorney argued that it should be interpreted literally and asserted that personally killing a victim is not the same as proximately causing the victim’s death.

His other convictions in relation to the incident – for kidnapping, gun possession, and corporal injury on a coinhabitant – were upheld.

Vang’s wife, Padao Vue, died of blunt force trauma to the head after falling from his truck on February 3rd, 2017. Dr. Jason Tovar opined that Vue’s injuries were consistent with falling out of a moving car but said some of her injuries could be consistent with a struggle. Her cause of death was ultimately recorded as undetermined.

The District Attorney’s Office later launched an investigation following urging from a victim advocacy group and uncovered a history of domestic violence from Vang, as well as the presence of a cultural Hmong marriage in which Vue was expected to be “patient” and not involve law enforcement in disputes.

DA investigators reviewed crime scene photographs showing Vang with scratches on his face and an injury to his finger, as well as Vue’s silver Toyota Camry left unlocked, in the dark, on the side of the road. Free meal coupons were littered inside and outside of the car, suggesting a struggle may have occurred.

The DA’s Office uncovered several incidents of abuse towards Vue by Vang. In December of 2014, he punched her and slammed her into a wall because he thought she was cheating. She didn’t go to the police, and later showed up at a friend’s house with a black eye.

In November of 2016, Vue and her baby showed up to her sister’s job, crying and distraught, after Vang pointed a gun at her, threatening to kill her and the baby if she ever left him. Vue did not go to law enforcement, and the situation was instead handled through a cultural “meeting of the elders” at the home of Vue’s parents.

“When the elders asked defendant about his guns, defendant said that he had given them away,” the opinion reads. “In light of this, the elders asked Padao if she felt safe with defendant. She said no. Nevertheless, the elders decided Padao should return to defendant, and she complied.”

Also presented at trial were three other domestic violence incidents involving other women. Vang choked one woman and threatened to kill her with his gun, punched another and told her to undress in front of strangers at a park before later pouring nail polish down her throat, and hit a third woman with a knife sharpener in an argument.

The court elected to kick the case back to the Gordon Schaber Courthouse, giving the District Attorney’s Office the opportunity to retry Vang, 37, under an alternate theory. If prosecutors elect not to charge Vang again, he will be resentenced accordingly.

Ethan Biando
Ethan Biando is a freelance journalist from Sacramento. His writing focuses on crime, courts, and policing. Find him on Twitter @ethanb822

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