In the following case from an event in 2008, Willie Scroggins was convicted of first-degree felony murder (Penal Code § 187(a)) and attempted robbery (Penal Code §§ 664/211), exemplifying the weaknesses in our judicial system that was tragic, even leading to his being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The jury found true that the murder was committed during the special circumstance of being committed during a robbery (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17)).
In 2015, the California Supreme court issued its ruling in People v. Banks (2015) 61 Cal.4th 788 and in 2016, the same court issued its ruling in People v. Clark (2016) 63 Cal.4th 522, both of which clarified the facts allowing a true finding under the special circumstances of felony murder.
The facts leading to his conviction in Sacramento County are important to understand to appreciate how the California Supreme Court, applying Banks and Clark, reversed the special circumstance finding from Scroggins’ trial.
In June 2008, Scroggins bought what he believed to be three large, flat-screen televisions from Samuel Wilson for $300 each. When Scroggins returned home with the boxes, he opened them up and found they each contained packaging paper and wood, but no televisions. Obviously, he was mad he had been swindled.
Scroggins told his girlfriend about this experience. Coincidentally, a few days later, Scroggins’ girlfriend saw Wilson and told Scroggins about this. Scroggins then hatched a plan to get even with Wilson.
Scroggins’ girlfriend would contact Wilson and pretend to be interested in buying the same type of television. The plan was for his girlfriend to meet up with Wilson to buy the TV and when Wilson was there, two of Scroggins’ close friends would jump out of a van and “beat the shit” out of Wilson and get Scroggins’ money back. The plan did not call for Scroggins to be present during the attack because Scroggins was concerned Wilson would recognize him and back out. There was no plan for the attack to involve anything but fists.
The plan then went forward. Scroggins’ girlfriend arranged for a meeting with Wilson to buy a TV. Wilson and she then agreed upon a place to meet and, as according to plan, once Wilson was there, two of Scroggins’ friends, Powell and Howard, jumped out of the van to beat up Wilson. As they did so, Powell pulled out a gun and fired several shots at Wilson. When Wilson tried to run away, Powell fired a few more shots at Wilson, killing him.
After this, Scroggins went to the crime scene and walked over to Wilson to see if he was still alive. Police arrived and interviewed Wilson, describing him as cooperative. However, he was arrested and eventually convicted of first-degree murder and attempted robbery.
Scroggins filed two petitions for writ of habeas corpus, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence for the special circumstance finding, that were denied. Banks and Clark were then decided and Scroggins filed a third such petition. The Third Appellate District denied it and Scroggins appealed to the California Supreme Court, which granted review.
Justice Liu issued the California Supreme Court’s ruling. He explained that nothing from Banks or Clark supported a finding that Scroggins acted with reckless indifference to human life.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by acknowledging U.S. Supreme Court law that characterized reckless indifference to human life implying that one “knowingly engages in activities known to carry a grave risk of death.” Tison v Arizona (1987) 481 U.S. 137, 157. Examples include “the person who tortures another not caring whether the victim lives or dies, or the robber who shoots someone in the course of the robbery, utterly indifferent to the fact that the desire to rob may have the unintended consequence of killing the victim as well as taking the victim’s property.” Id. Reckless indifference “encompasses a willingness to kill (or assist another in killing) to achieve a distinct aim, even if the defendant does not specifically desire that death as the outcome of his actions.” Clark, supra, at 617.
In looking at Scroggins’ conduct, the Supreme Court looked at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether he acted with reckless indifference to human life. Relevant factors are whether he knew a gun would be used. How many weapons were ultimately used? Was defendant physically present at the crime? Did he or she have the opportunity to restrain the crime or aid the victim? What was the duration of the interaction between the perpetrators of the felony and the victims? What was defendant’s knowledge of the propensity for violence of his or her confederate or likelihood of using physical force? Banks, at 803.
In considering all these factors and issues, the Supreme Court ruled that the special circumstances be reversed and the matter remanded. This should mean that Scroggins should be resentenced to second-degree murder or even voluntary manslaughter with a correspondingly shorter sentence.