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Criminal Defense Attorneys

SB 1437 Relief: Murder Resentenced to Burglary & Robbery?

The following short summary of a recent reported decision from the First Appellate District exemplifies how Penal Code §§ 1170.95(d)(1) – (3), the operative portion of Senate Bill 1437, is intended to operate. 

However, sadly, the most important portions of this opinion are not certified for publication (pursuant to California Rules of Court, rules 8.1105(b) and 8.1110), so it cannot be cited to as binding authority on any other case.

In 1988, Donald Watson was convicted by plea of second degree murder (Penal Code §§ 187(a), 189(b)) and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. 

On January 14, 2019, after the enactment of Senate Bill 1437, Watson filed a petition to vacate his murder conviction and be resentenced under Penal Code § 1170.95. 

In his petition, he stated that he, along with his “crime partners,” Timothy Garland and Robert James, “devised a plan to rob Mr. Jon Castle.”  The plan was originally proposed by Robert James.  Watson and James went to Castle’s hotel room and Castle let them in.  Once inside, Watson grabbed Castle while Garland and James rifled through Castle’s pockets.  Castle began to kick Garland and in response, Garland began punching him, pulled out a knife and stabbed Castle.  Watson immediately released Castle, as he allegedly had no intention of having Castle murdered.

When Watson saw that Castle was bleeding and had collapsed, Watson tried to prop him up.  James had Castle’s wallet after the incident.  
The next morning, Watson went to a bail bonds company and said he had “witnessed a murder” wherein someone got stabbed.

Based on these facts, Watson alleged he was not the actual murderer and “was not an aider and abettor in the robbery.”  He argued in his 1437 petition that he accepted a plea bargain without any special circumstance allegations and did not have the intent to murder Castle.

In passing Senate Bill 1437, the legislature intended to limit application of the felony-murder rule and murder based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine by modifying the mens rea element for murder under those theories.
 
Under Penal Code § 1170.95(e), where murder is charged generically and the underlying felony was not charged, the trial court may redesignate the vacated murder conviction as the “underlying felony for resentencing purposes.”

Judge John Ellis of the Solano County Superior Court granted Mr. Watson’s petition for resentencing, vacated his murder conviction, and redesignated that conviction as two offenses: first degree burglary (Penal Code §§ 459, 460(a)) and first degree robbery (Penal Code §§ 211, 212.5(a)).  Judge Ellis then sentencing Watson on the burglary conviction to six years in prison and imposed, but stayed execution of a sentence of five years on the robbery conviction pursuant to Penal Code § 654 (this was an error, as the maximum sentence in 1988 for first degree robbery was five years)   The judge then placed Watson on parole supervision and ordered that he pay a $1,800 restitution fine.

Watson had served 32 years in custody.
 
Quite surprisingly, Mr. Watson appealed, arguing to the First Appellate District that 1170.95 only permitted a judge to designate one felony as the underlying crime and therefore, his sentence for both burglary and robbery was unauthorized.
 
Watson also sought immediate release from parole supervision, contending that his excess custody credits eliminated the parole period.

In the published portion of the opinion (which can be cited as authority in other cases, i.e., a pending 1170.95 proceeding), The First Appellate District affirmed the redesignated murder conviction as both robbery and burglary.  The court found that Watson was a major participant in the crime, but he did not act with knowing and reckless indifference to human life.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the First Appellate District remanded the matter to specify the period of Watson’s parole, however, it noted that in People v. Wilson (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 42, the court determined that when a person is resentenced under 1170.95, the court is not required to reduce or eliminate the person’s parole supervision period in applying excess custody credits as it can under Penal Code §§ 2900.5(c) and 1170(d)(3), and in fact, under 1170.95(g), excess custody credits do not apply to resentencing under SB 1437.

For more information about Penal Code § 1170.95 resentencing (SB 1437), please click on the following articles:
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