In People v. Aledamat, all the Supreme Court justices agree that when a jury is given two different theories for convicting a criminal defendant and one of the theories is legally inapplicable, the conviction can be affirmed if the instructional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  They all also reject a stringent corollary to the rule — that reversal is required unless the record establishes the jury actually relied on the valid theory.  The court concludes that it is not restricted to looking only at the jury’s verdict, but should “examin[e] the entire cause, including the evidence, and consider[ ] all relevant circumstances.”

However, it is only a bare majority that finds the error harmless in this case and that therefore affirms the conviction.

The jurors were correctly told they could convict the defendant of assault with a deadly weapon if he used the weapon — a box cutter — in a deadly way.  But they were also told they could convict if the box cutter was inherently deadly, which as a matter of law it is not.

The court’s 4-3 opinion by Justice Ming Chin — for himself, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Justice Carol Corrigan, and Justice Leondra Kruger — says, “It is clear the error did not contribute to the verdict.”  Justice Goodwin Liu, in one separate opinion, and Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (joined by Justice Joshua Groban), in another opinion, disagree.  Justice Cuéllar says that “courts performing harmless error review are walking a tightrope” and that the majority “loses its footing” and “[t]umbl[es] headlong into the jury’s factfinding role.”

The court reverses the Second District, Division Two, Court of Appeal, which had reversed the conviction, feeling itself bound by a stricter harmless error standard of review than is stated today.

The court’s grant of review in Aledamat was unusual.  While there was a vacancy on the court, only three permanent justices — the Chief Justice and Justices Chin and Corrigan — voted for review and the court brought in a pro tem justice, who cast the fourth vote to hear the case.  Justice Kruger, who did not vote for review, joins the Chief, Chin, and Corrigan to form the majority today.