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SB 1437: Conviction for First Degree Murder Eligible?

In 2010, in the Compton Superior Court, a jury found Obed Estrada guilty of one count of first degree murder with a gang enhancement (Penal Code §§ 186.22(b)(1)(C); 187(a)).  The jury found not true allegations that Estrada personally and intentionally discharged or used a firearm.

The trial court judge, Allen J. Webster, sentenced Estrada to 50 years to life.  Estrada appealed his conviction and sentence to the Second Appellate District, but the appeal was denied.

On January 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1437 took effect “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.”  People v. Lewis (2021) 11 Cal. 5th 952, 959.

Senate Bill 1437 amended sections 188 and 189 of the Penal Code and added section 1170.95, which provides a procedure for individuals convicted of murder who could not be convicted under the law as amended to retroactively seek relief.

Section 1170.95 created a three-part eligibility test: (1) the defendant must have been charged with murder by means of a charging document that allowed the prosecution to proceed under a theory of felony murder or under the natural and probable consequences doctrine, (2) the defendant must have been convicted of first degree or second degree murder, and (3) the defendant could no longer be convicted of first or second degree murder due to changes in sections 188 and 189 effected by Senate Bill 1437.

A petition for relief under § 1170.95 must include a declaration that petitioner is eligible for relief based upon meeting these three requirements, the superior court case number and the year of the conviction, as well as a statement as to whether petitioner requests the appointment of counsel (Penal Code § 1170.95(b)(1)(A) – (C)). 

“Where the petition complies with [section 1170.95] subdivision (b)’s three requirements, then the court proceeds to subdivision (c) to assess whether the petitioner has made ‘a prima facie showing’ for relief.”  Lewis, supra, 11 Cal. 5th at p. 960, citing 1170.95(c).

If the court determines the petitioner has made a prima facie showing of eligibility for relief, it must issue an order to show cause why relief should not be granted.  If the parties do not stipulate that petitioner is entitled to relief at that point, then the court must hold a hearing and vacate the murder conviction if the prosecution fails to prove that the petitioner is ineligible for relief beyond a reasonable doubt (Penal Code § 1170.95(d)).

In March 2019, Estrada filed a petition for resentencing pursuant to § 1170.95, declaring that he was not the actual killer, did not act with intent to kill, and was not a major participant in the felony or did not act with reckless indifference to human life.  Judge Webster appointed counsel for Estrada and both parties submitted briefing.

In January 2021, Judge Webster held a hearing and denied Estrada’s petition without issuing an order to show cause, after finding that Estrada did not meet the prima facie burden under 1170.95.  Judge Webster found that nothing in the record reflected that Estrada was prosecution under a natural and probable consequences theory.  The judge also noted that the felony murder doctrine was not relevant to Estrada’s case.  The judge found that Estrada was convicted under an aiding and abetting theory and that Estrada acted as a “backup” or “security” in this “classic aider and abettor case.”

Estrada appealed this ruling to the Second Appellate District Court in downtown Los Angeles, which affirmed Judge Webster.  The Second Appellate District found that Estrada had the intent to kill, and he is therefore ineligible for resentencing under 1170.95.  See People v. Gentile (2020) 10 Cal. 5th 830, at 848 (“Senate Bill 1437 does not eliminate direct aiding and abetting liability for murder because a direct aider and abettor to murder must possess malice aforethought.”).

Moreover, the jury instructions in Estrada’s case told the jury that it could not convict him of murder unless the jury found he acted willfully and with intent to kill.  Accordingly, Estrada is ineligible for resentencing under 1437.

We present this summary because it shows how an aider and abettor certainly can have the intent to kill when he or she  had the role as Estrada here, of a “backup” or “security” in the underlying murder, and then is not eligible for resentencing under SB 1437.

For more information about Senate Bill (SB) 1437, please click on the following articles:
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