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California Court Issues Opinion in Recent SB 1437 Case

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a California homicide case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to relief under SB 1437. However, the court held that, under California Supreme Court case law, a petition for relief under SB 1437 is not cognizable on appeal, and must first be filed with the trial court. The opinion illustrates the complexity of the procedural rules that govern post-conviction matters generally, but also especially those seeking relief under SB 1437.

Passed in 2017, SB 1437 is a criminal justice reform law that precludes the prosecution from pursuing first- or second-degree murder charges in certain situations. It also provides a mechanism for defendants to petition the court for a re-sentencing hearing, if they were convicted of an offense that they could no longer be convicted of. A re-sentencing under SB 1437 is available if the defendant meets each of the following elements:

  1. The charging document allowed the prosecution to pursue a conviction under a theory of first-degree felony murder or through the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine;
  2. The defendant accepted a plea agreement or was found guilty and of a first- or second-degree murder charge; and
  3. SB 1437 would prevent the defendant from being charged and convicted of the crimes.

In this case, the defendant was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder, five counts of attempted robbery, and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The prosecution claimed that the defendant used a deadly weapon during the course of the crime. However, at trial, the jury did not make a finding that the defendant personally used a weapon. The jury also found that someone “other than an accomplice” was present at the time of the killings.

In this direct appeal action, the defendant argued that SB 1437 entitled him to relief. Specifically, he argued that the prosecution failed to prove that he personally committed the murders.

However, the California Supreme Court, in the case, People v. Gentile, held that relief under SB 1437 is not available on direct appeal, and must be initially sought through the trial court. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments to the contrary, that requesting an evidentiary hearing in front of the trial court would require he waive his constitutional right to Double Jeopardy protection. The court explained that an evidentiary hearing in front of the trial court does not implicate Double Jeopardy concerns, because the evidentiary hearing could not result in additional punishment.

Thus, the state of the law remains the same. Relief under SB 1437 must be initially pursued with the trial court. If the trial court rejects a defendant’s claim then, and only then, can he or she appeal that decision in a separate appeal.

Are You Seeking Relief Under SB 1437?

If you were convicted of a California homicide offense, are currently serving a lengthy prison sentence, SB 1437 may be one avenue of relief. However, SB 1437 is exceptionally complex, and requires the assistance of an attorney who commands a detailed understanding of the legislation. Attorney Matthew Barhoma skillfully handles California post-conviction matters on behalf of clients serving effective life sentences, helping them navigate the system so their claims get the attention they deserve. To learn more, call 213-800-7664 to schedule a free consultation today.

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