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California Supreme Court Grants Resentencing Under SB 1437, Finding a Defendant Cannot Be Convicted of Second-Degree Murder Under the “Natural and Probable Causes” Doctrine

Last month, the California Supreme Court released its opinion in a case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to a resentencing hearing under Senate Bill 1437 (SB 1437). The case illustrates the power of SB 1437, and what it means for those serving lengthy prison terms for California murder convictions.

The Facts

Back in 2014, the defendant was arrested for murder. The prosecution and defense offered very different versions of the events leading up to the victim’s death. According to the defense, a woman told the defendant that the victim had been raping her. At this point, the defendant punched the victim in the face, and the woman began attacking the victim with what the defendant thought was a sledgehammer. The defendant denies ever using a weapon to strike the victim, who later died. The defendant’s DNA was found on cigarette butts at the scene.

The defendant was arrested for first-degree murder, based largely on the woman’s testimony. He was convicted, but that conviction was later reduced to a second-degree murder conviction based on his initial appeal. However, after the passage of SB 1437, the defendant filed a post-conviction motion, asking the court to vacate his sentence for second-degree murder.

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Specifically, the defendant claimed that SB 1437 eliminated the possibility of a conviction for second-degree murder under the “natural and probably causes” theory. When SB 1437 was passed back in 2019, it amended the felony-murder statute, including the requirement that a defendant possesses “malice aforethought” to sustain a murder conviction. In other words, SB 1437 prevents a murder conviction against someone who is “not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

Here, the defendant claims that there was insufficient evidence to show that he had any intention to cause the victim’s death. The court agreed, pointing out the distinction between “direct” aiding and abetting and liability under the “natural and probable causes” doctrine. Direct aiding and abetting results in a defendant being liable for any crime they commit, as well as any crime committed by any other defendant. This is because the defendant is assumed to share the intent of the other defendants. However, under the natural and probable causes doctrine, a defendant may not share the other defendants’ intent, but have assisted in bringing about the victim’s death nonetheless. Thus, a defendant’s criminal liability under the natural and probable causes doctrine is different.

When viewing the defendant’s potential liability through the lens of SB 1437, the court concluded that the defendant could not be found guilty of second-degree murder because there was insufficient evidence he possessed the requisite level of intent.

Obtaining relief under SB 1437 can be complex; however, that should not discourage anyone who believes they are entitled to relief from pursuing a petition. Working with an experienced California post-conviction lawyer can help defendants understand the current landscape and effectively prepare a petition for relief.

Reach Out to a California Post-Conviction Lawyer Today

If you or a loved one are serving a lengthy prison sentence for a California murder conviction, SB 1437 may provide relief. Attorney Matthew Barhoma is an experienced appellate and post-conviction lawyer who works closely with his clients to prepare compelling petitions for relief. He commands an impressive knowledge of this complex area of the law, and is ready to put that knowledge to use for you or your family member. To learn more, call 213-800-7664 today.

 

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