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SB 1437 & Jury’s Rejection of Murder Special Circumstances?

The following summary involves a Long Beach Superior Court case and a judge, Judith Meyer, we hold in high esteem. 

However, in this case, the Second Appellate District found she made a legal error, one that we found surprising, given her sterling reputation.
The Reader’s Digest Version: In evaluating an SB 1437 Petition for Resentencing under Penal Code § 1170.95, a judge strictly must not engage in fact finding at the prima facie stage.  The judge must only consider readily ascertainable facts.  The summary below exemplifies a case where the judge went too far in the first stage of this inquiry.
The factual background of the underlying case and the trial is important towards understanding the Second Appellate District’s ruling on the appeal of subsequent SB 1437 petition for resentencing, which was summarily denied by Judge Meyer.

On May 3, 1999, Darryl Clayton, Jr., and three others entered a jewelry and music store in Long Beach.  Jenny and Gary Kim were working in the store at that time.

Two of the four men that entered pulled out guns and held Gary Kim at gunpoint.  Clayton, who was not armed, pulled Jenny Kim over the counter by her clothing and dragged her to the back of the store.  He then went through her clothing and ordered her to open the cash register, which she did.  Clayton then ordered Jenny to the back of the store and ordered her to lie facedown on the floor. 

The two men that were holding Gary Kim at gunpoint shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.  The four men then left with money from the cash register and jewelry.

Three of the robbers were arrested soon after the murder, but it took several more months to find and arrest Clayton.  In an interview with the police, Clayton at first denied any knowledge of the robbery.  However, he later confessed he was in the store during the robbery and the murder.  Moreover, Clayton denied involvement in any plan to rob the store and said he did not know a robbery was about to take place when he entered the store.

art_1517_-_long_beach_courthouse.jpgLong Beach Courthouse

Clayton also claimed he pulled Jenny Kim over the counter to protect her from the others when it appeared two of his friends were going to shoot her.  Clayton also claimed he took no money from the cash register and that he was leaving the store when he heard the shot killing Gary Kim.

On July 10, 2000, a jury convicted Clayton of one count of first degree murder and two counts of robbery.  However, the jury found the special circumstance allegation that the murder was committed while Clayton was engaged in the crime of robbery to be not true.  The judge then sentenced Clayton to 25 years to life, plus one year for the firearm enhancement on the murder, plus seven years and four months for the enhancement. 

On April 23, 2019, Clayton filed a petition for resentencing under SB 1437 (Penal Code § 1170.95).  Judge Meyer appointed counsel and ordered briefing from the parties.  Following briefing and argument, Judge Meyer evaluated the evidence and summarily denied the petition without issuing an order to show cause why relief should not be granted. 

Judge Meyer found that the jury’s not true finding on the special circumstance allegation was irrelevant to its determination of whether there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction for first degree murder under the felony murder rule, Judge Meyer found Clayton was a major participant who acted with reckless disregard for human life.  She therefore denied the petition.

Clayton appealed this ruling to the Second Appellate District, arguing that Judge Meyer violated Penal Code § 1170.95, subsections (c) and (d), because she engaged in factfinding.  Instead, the judge must “assume all facts stated in the 1170.95 petition are true” (People v. Drayton (2020) 47 Cal. App. 5th 965, 980) and draw “all factual inferences in favor of the petitioner” (People v. Verdugo (2020) 44 Cal.  App. 5th 320, 329).

In other words, the judge’s authority to make determinations without issuing an order to show cause, as here, and proceeding in accordance with Penal Code § 1170.95(d) is thus limited to “readily ascertainable facts from the record (such as the crime of conviction), rather than factfinding involving the weighing of evidence or the exercise of discretion (such as determining whether the petitioner showed reckless indifference to human life in the commission of the crime).”  Drayton, supra, at 980.

If, after the parties’ briefing, the petitioner has made a prima facie showing that he or she is entitled to relief because there remains no proof of ineligibility as a matter of law, “the court shall issue an order to show cause” why relief should not be granted.  Penal Code § 1170.95(c).

We recognize this is easier said than done, especially in a case where the judge may not agree with how the jury decided the case or when there are especially horrific facts. 

Here, it seems from the facts taken from Clayton’s direct appeal that Clayton was in fact a major participant acting with reckless disregard for human life in committing the crime, however, the jury did not find this so and consequently, the judge cannot ignore that, no matter what he or she thinks.  Instead, the judge must issue an order to show cause why resentencing should not take place.

We present this summary to exemplify how strict the law is applied in this context and how the judge’s discretion to make factual determinations at the prima facie stage is tightly controlled, which is obviously good for defendants seeking such relief.

The citation for the Second Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Darryl Clayton, Jr. (2d App. Dist., 2021) 66 Cal. App. 5th 145, 280 Cal. Rptr. 3d 735.

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