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Criminal Defense Attorneys

Does Felony Murder Special Circumstance Bar SB 1437 Relief?

Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on August 15, 2003, a neighbor called the father of 18-year-old Jessica De La Torre and told him his house in Ontario was on fire.  Mr. De La Torre was at work and his 18-year-old daughter was not in the house.

Arson investigators determined the house fire was caused by three different fires started in each bedroom by placing open flames against the bedding.

Investigators also found that the family’s black Toyota Avalon was stolen, as well as several items from inside the house.  They also found a bloody shirt whose DNA profiled matched that of Jessica De La Torre.  There was also blood on the walls that matched Jessica’s DNA.

The same day, Jessica’s body was found in the hills above Rubidoux.  She was wearing only her bra, her feet were bound with a belt and she had tire tracks across her body. 

Several days later, the Avalon was found about six miles from where Jessica’s body was found.

On the same day as the fire and discovery of Jessica’s body, Sergio Rojas Arias made eight attempts to withdraw money from Jessica’s ATM at a bank on North Euclid Avenue in Ontario about three miles from Jessica’s home.  The first five attempts to withdraw money were unsuccessful because he entered the wrong PIN.  The last three attempts were unsuccessful because the bank locked the account after the unsuccessful attempts.

A few hours later, Jesus Panuelas attempted to withdraw money from an ATM at a bank on North Mountain Avneue using the same ATM card as Arias had used earlier.

Arias was eventually arrested and prosecuted for the first degree murder of De La Torre “under three similar theories: (1) Arias aided and abetted or conspired to commit a felony that resulted in death; (2) Arias aided and abetted a robbery and the murder was a natural and probable consequence of the robbery; and (3) Arias conspired to commit a robbery and the murder was a natural and probable consequence of the robbery.”  The aiding and abetting and conspiracy asserted was with co-defendant Panuelas, Arias’ friend.

After a trial, a San Bernardino County jury convicted Arias of first-degree murder of Jessica De La Torre and found true a special-circumstance allegation that the murder was committed while Arias was engaged in the commission of a robbery pursuant to Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17)(A).  The jury fixed the penalty for Arias’ conviction as imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) and the trial court sentenced Arias accordingly. 

On direct appeal, the Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.  The California Supreme Court then denied review on June 22, 2011.

On January 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1437 became effective “to amend the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder to ensure that murder liability is not imposed on a person 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.”  Senate Bill 1437, § 1(f).

Senate Bill 1437 also enacted section 1170.95, which provides resentencing relief to eligible defendants, specifically those who were convicted of felony murder or murder under a natural and probable consequences theory under the above conditions (not actual killer, etc.).

On August 15, 2019, Arias filed a pro per petition to vacate his murder conviction and to be resentenced under § 1170.95.

The People filed a response, arguing, among other things, that because the jury found true a robbery-murder special circumstance, that would have required, at a minimum, a finding of intent to kill or that Arias was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference and the court of appeal expressly found sufficient evidence that Arias was a major participant with reckless indifference.

The trial court judge, Samuel Diaz, Jr., summarily denied the petition and Arias appealed this ruling to the Fourth Appellate District in Riverside, arguing that the felony-murder-special circumstance finding made prior to People v. Banks and People v. Clark does not categorically preclude resentencing. People v. Banks (2015) 61 Cal. 4th 788 and People v. Clark (2016) 63 Cal. 4th 522.

The Fourth Appellate District agreed, but acknowledged that there was a split of authority on whether such a prior finding was conclusive. 

The appellate court thus remanded the petition to the trial court to re-evaluate the facts of the case in light of the factors listed in Banks and Clark.

We bring this article to the reader’s attention because we want the reader to know that the Fourth Appellate District, at least, is one that permits reconsideration of the facts under Banks and Clark even if there is a felony murder special circumstance finding.

For more information about felony murder special circumstance findings as being determinative toward 1437 relief, please click on the following articles:
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