Ten years ago, the domestic violence murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko helped bring down San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan and put Kamala Harris in his place. Five years later, Harris' office put Tempongko's killer behind bars.
On Tuesday the tragedy came full circle, as the California attorney general's office — now under Harris' leadership — sought to preserve the conviction of Tare Beltran before the California Supreme Court.
A divided appellate panel had thrown out the verdict, but Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye sounded eager to reinstate it, even objecting at one point to the description of Tempongko and Beltran's relationship as stormy. "When you say 'stormy,' we're using the wrong word," she said. This, she declared, was a domestic violence killing. "The storminess is all on his side."
The murder prompted a critical report from San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women that became part of the blueprint for Harris' 2003 campaign. Beltran, who fled to Mexico, was arrested in 2006 and convicted of second-degree murder two years later. Harris personally attended his sentencing.
But the First District Court of Appeal threw out the conviction in 2011, saying Judge Robert Dondero -- now of the First District -- misinstructed the jury on Beltran's bid for voluntary manslaughter. Beltran had argued that Tempongko provoked him into an uncontrollable rage by telling him she'd aborted their child. Dondero told jurors the provocation had to be sufficient to cause an ordinary person not just to act rashly, but to kill.
Before a nearly packed courtroom Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Laurence argued Dondero had it mostly right: To qualify for manslaughter, the defendant must show that an ordinary person could be provoked to a homicidal act. "This court has held repeatedly that a defendant may not set up his own standard of conduct," Laurence argued.
Beltran's attorney, Linda Leavitt of San Francisco, argued that conduct is beside the point — the defendant only need show that malice was negated by an irrational impulse.
Justice Carol Corrigan seemed to disagree, saying a person might get annoyed at a motorist for "saluting without all fingers extended," but couldn't likely shoot and claim it was manslaughter. Justice Goodwin Liu said Leavitt's position was too all-or-nothing. "We walk around the world either reasonable or passionate — that's it?" he asked.
Cantil-Sakauye then asked if there shouldn't be a time limit on a heat-of-passion defense. She counted out loud to 17 — the number of stab wounds — to make her point.
"It's not did he stab her once or stab her 10 times, it's did he lose the mental state," Leavitt said.
In the end, whatever standard the court adopts probably won't be relevant, as the justices sounded likely to find any error harmless, even though jurors had specifically asked Dondero about the instruction. "The problem is there's a lot of evidence that undermines your client's version of events," Corrigan told Leavitt.