The United States justice system has a lengthy history of open and shut cases being overturned on appeal on the littlest thing. But the truth is that the legal research shows that criminal appeals get dismissed more often than they do not. Convicted murderer Chris Lee of California is hoping to beat those odds, and has just filed an appeal on his first degree murder charge of Erin Corwin according to Z107.7.
Richard de la Sota, lawyer for Christopher Lee, told Z107.7 that he has filed an appeal on Chris Lee’s conviction in the Erin Corwin murder trial. He’s filing it on the grounds of jury instruction error, a very common grounds for appeal. De la Sota believes the judge made an error by not instructing the jury in last year’s trial to use tests to determine if Chris Lee acted in passion the night he killed Erin Corwin.
As such, the appeal is saying that Chris Lee should have been convicted of manslaughter, based on this heat of passion argument. Chris Lee has admitted to killing Erin. He says he was angry, and also said he was suicidal.
There are resources available at the military base of 29 Palms to help soldiers with mental health problems. There was no mention at the trial, or evidence provided, that suggested Christopher Lee was suffering from or receiving treatment for mental health problems.
Not only did Chris Lee admit to killing Erin Corwin, but he also said when he testified last year that it took him five minutes to kill her, according to the Desert Sun. Thus, not one moment in the heat of passion, but five, according to Christopher Lee.
Prosecutors argued that any time in those five minutes he could have changed his mind and saved Erin Corwin’s life. He did not. The prosecutor also argued that Lee’s abuse allegations against the victim, Erin Corwin, and heat of the moment story was on this basis.
“He had to form a story to mitigate the damage.”
This, along with many other factors of premeditation were provided for the jury to consider, including a vehicle owned by Chris that was loaded with weapons. The jury did not buy the heat of passion argument, and convicted Chris Lee of first degree murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait.
But today, Chris Lee’s lawyer is saying that if a reasonable person believed that Chris Lee was provoked into strangling Erin Corwin for five whole minutes, that he should be convicted of manslaughter instead of murder one.
But even worse for the family of Erin Corwin, Lee’s lawyer is saying that testimony Chris Lee provided at trial should have been taken as fact by the jury. He’s saying they should have conducted tests to authenticate his claims. The claim in question was that Chris Lee killed Erin Corwin, because, he says, she was molesting his six-year-old daughter.
His claim on the stand was the only evidence that the defense proffered for this grossly prejudicial allegation against a deceased victim. Prosecutors called it “nonsense” according to the Desert Sun when Lee was sentenced. Lore Heavilin, the victim’s mother said the following.
“I cannot imagine putting your daughter’s name into the public record to save yourself.”
Found in Chris Lee’s car after his arrest was a handmade garote, used for hanging or strangling people. It was rope and rebar formed together. A firearm was also found. Found in the mine shaft where he dumped her body were materials that matched that garote, along with empty shell casings, a home made torch, a propane tank, and an empty bottle of Sprite. Chris Lee had two weapons made in preparation of this crime.
The propane tank was borrowed from a friend just prior to the murder. A second witness that did not even know that first witness then testified that Chris asked him for the tank. He also searched online for ways to dispose of a body reported People Magazine.
The propane tank was a planned element of this crime, according to this testimony.
The relationship between Chris Lee and Erin Corwin was formed when Erin and her husband Jonathan were stationed at the same base, and next door, to Chris Lee and his wife Nicole. An affair started in the base they lived at, in 29 Palms in San Bernardino, California.
The rumor mill on 29 Palms is that this occurs very frequently, although those are anecdotal testimonies and unable to be confirmed. Common as it may be, affairs are not something people want to openly discuss.
Erin Corwin was reportedly pregnant at the time of the murder. She was 19 at the time.
Since the death of Erin Corwin, the small 29 Palms community banded together somewhat. Just one week after her disappearance, while search and rescue teams combed Joshua Tree National Park looking for Erin Corwin, Marine wives on base handed out purple ribbons in Erin’s honor, her favorite color. It is a symbol that pervades the justice pages for Erin Corwin still today.
Two couples meet on base and formed what will become a deadly friendship. Then an affair, which allegedly resulted in a pregnancy.
Then there was an entire country talking about a missing pregnant marine wife. Then there was a funeral. Then a capital murder trial.
The trial was last year, and Chris Lee was convicted of first degree murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait, by a jury. He was then sentenced to life in prison. The jury did not believe him.
He was lucky to get that. The sentence statute is death penalty under the ornately named special circumstance charge of “lying in wait.” That penalty was removed early in the case.
Now, Lee wants the whole thing to be just forgotten about and reduced to manslaughter.
In addition to the weapons found in his car, the propane tank he borrowed ahead of time, and the Internet searches, Chris Lee let the State of California pay for a seven-week search of Erin Corwin. He knew where she was the whole time.
His wife, Nicole Lee, reportedly told the police during that search time that they would never find the body. How she would know such a thing is unclear at this time. There was no love lost between Nicole Lee and the deceased woman who had allegedly been impregnated by her husband.
In those seven weeks, Erin’s family waited for that phone call, hoping it wasn’t their worst fears, and then it was. Those worst fears would be realized, while Chris Lee booked it to Alaska, and said nothing. Christopher Lee was arrested and extradited from Alaska the day after Erin Corwin’s body was found, in the amount of time it takes to confirm rebar from the vehicle already seized matches the rebar found at the scene.
Now Chris Lee wants the appellate court to believe it was all just an accident.
Lee’s daughter is near the age of eight now.
Most murder convictions automatically go to appeal, and the appellate lawyer scrambles and nitpicks to come up with an argument to do so.
Now Chris is arguing the heat of passion, and also that he may have been suicidal at the time. What he’s asking the jury to do after the fact, with zero evidence, is to read his state of mind at the time he spent five minutes strangling Erin Corwin. There is no evidence of a mental health argument, no evidence of a heat of passion defense, and a big pile of evidence that speaks to premeditation that the appellate court will review.
He killed her after he spent time on the Internet researching body disposal. He killed her after he collected weapons, and made them, and put them in his car. He killed her after he went to the trouble of borrowing a propane tank, and having conversations about it with multiple people.
He killed her after he put a gun in his car. After all of that planning, or, premeditation, he came up behind Erin and spent five minutes with a garote around her neck. He admits to doing that.
California law on the difference between manslaughter and first degree murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait is very clear and falls under Penal Code 187. The Shouse California Law Group says that when a jury convicts on special circumstances of lying in wait, the defendant must have intended to kill his victim.
The four principles of lying in wait as a special circumstance under this code include the killer concealing his purpose from the victim, waiting and watching for an opportunity to act, making a surprise attack from a position of advantage, and intending to kill them by taking them by surprise.
Chris Lee admitted to coming up from behind Erin Corwin and strangling her for five minutes in a separate report by the Desert Sun after his testimony at the Erin Corwin murder trial. The Shouse Law California Law group says manslaughter is defined as a “sudden burst of rage” or heat of passion. This would be called voluntary manslaughter, and carries a sentence of 11 years.
The Desert Sun reported that Chris said the following on the stand.
“I made the decision to kill her. I was controlled by the anger. The hate I felt that day, it was something I never want to experience again.”
Making a decision to kill someone is against the law, and if that thought becomes a thing it is called premeditated murder. It is the very definition of premeditation. Lee testified he spent five minutes strangling her with a garote made of rebar and rope, then he released his hold on Erin and she fell to the ground.
He then spent approximately 30 seconds checking to see if she was alive, then dragged her to the abandoned mine shaft and pushed her in head first.
It took investigators seven weeks to find her. He said nothing, until he accused Erin Corwin of child abuse allegations that were not substantiated by evidence at trial.
The prosecutor accused Lee of lying to the jury on the stand, saying, “It’s about you. You wanted attention.”
Appellate attorney Kyle D. Smith says that in California, only about four to six percent of criminal appeals result in a reversal, and approximately 70 percent of appeals either have the lower trial court decision affirmed with the appeal dismissed.
A Department of Justice report confirms reversals on appeals are rare, noting that in California, appeal courts are known as COLR mandatory, or, the Court of Last Resort (COLR). Some other states have is called Intermediate Appellate Courts (IAC). The Department of Justice noted that in 2010, the Court of Last Resort dismissed more appeals than did the IAC.
It’s the next step for convicted killer Christopher Lee in the Erin Corwin murder trial.
The higher court will either dismiss his request, review it, and either dismiss it entirely, or affirm the trial court decision in part or in whole. If his appeal is affirmed, that does not mean he is automatically convicted of manslaughter, but it means a new trial.
All of the evidence of premeditation in the Erin Corwin murder trial would be presented again, and he would have to provide evidence supporting a heat of passion defense.
[Feature Image by San Bernardino County Sherriff’s Office]