A state lawyer asked the California Supreme Court in San Francisco today to reinstate the second-degree murder conviction of a man who fatally stabbed his former girlfriend 13 years ago after a two-year history of domestic violence.
The court’s seven justices heard an hour of arguments in the case of Tare Beltran, 40, who was convicted in San Francisco Superior Court in 2008 of second-degree murder in the slaying of Claire Tempongko, 28.
The justices now have three months to issue a decision.
Beltran, also known as Tare Ramirez, has admitted killing Tempongko with a kitchen knife in her basement apartment in the city on Oct. 22, 2000.
But he claims his crime should be classified as voluntary manslaughter rather than murder because he allegedly acted in the heat of passion. He maintains he became enraged when he learned Tempongko had become pregnant with his child and had had an abortion.
Prosecutors are appealing a 2011 Court of Appeal decision that overturned the murder conviction and ordered a new trial on the ground that there were errors in the jury instructions on the standards for a voluntary manslaughter conviction.
Beltran was originally sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for the murder, but if he wins a new trial and is convicted of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, he would face a lower sentence of between three and 11 years in prison.
In the meantime, he has remained in custody at the California Correctional Facility in Susanville during the appeal.
Tempongko suffered 17 stab wounds and four blunt force injuries in the attack, which took place in front of her 10-year-old son. Her 5-year-old daughter was also in the apartment at the time. Beltran was not the father of either child.
The widely publicized slaying became a cause for anti-domestic violence advocates, for whom the case symbolized a failure by authorities to protect abuse victims.
Beltran, a Mexican citizen who worked as a dishwasher, was arrested three times in 1999 on domestic violence charges and served four months in jail for one of the attacks.
In September 2000, Tempongko called police to her Richmond District apartment twice, once when Ramirez allegedly choked her and a second time when he rang the buzzer of her apartment despite knowing of an emergency protective order requiring him to stay away.
State law allows a homicide to be classified as voluntary manslaughter when the slaying is provoked by “a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”
Today’s appeal arguments centered on whether a trial jury should be instructed that the provocation could cause an average person to want to kill another person, or merely that the provocation would cause an average person to act rashly.
Deputy California Attorney General Jeffrey Laurence asked the court to uphold the jury instructions given by Superior Court Judge Robert Dondero in 2008, which implied that a jury must find that an average person would be provoked into committing a lethal act.
“A defendant may not set up his own standard of conduct,” Laurence told the court.
In a second argument, Laurence contended any error in the voluntary manslaughter instructions would be harmless because there was ample evidence for the more serious second-degree murder conviction.
Linda Leavitt, Beltran’s lawyer in the appeal, argued that a jury should be told that the provocation must be merely something that would cause an average person’s reasoning to become clouded and irrational.
Several justices appeared to be favoring Laurence’s argument.
Justice Goodwin Liu suggested that the element of a lethal act is inherent in voluntary manslaughter cases because a killing has occurred.
“It’s a homicide,” he said.
When Laurence at one point described Beltran and Tempongko’s relationship as “stormy,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye interrupted to tell him he was using the wrong word.
The relationship was one of domestic violence toward a victim, she said.
In a civil lawsuit filed against the city of San Francisco after Tempongko’s death, her family accused authorities of negligence in failing to transmit police reports on her calls for help to probation officials, the district attorney and the Superior Court.
The city settled the lawsuit in 2004 by awarding $500,000 to Tempongko’s two children.
District Attorney George Gascon said in a statement today, “The October 2000 murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko shook this city to its core.
“Her brutal murder sparked a movement that created significant changes to our city’s response to domestic violence,” Gascon said.
Beltran fled to Mexico after the slaying and was arrested there in 2006 and brought back to San Francisco for trial.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News