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SB 1437: The Strong Case, Clarifying Banks and Clark

As the reader of this article may already know, in 2018, Senate Bill (SB) 1437 narrowed the scope of who could be convicted of felony murder and allowed resentencing of those who were previously convicted of felony murder, but who would not now be convicted under the newly, more narrowly worded law.  SB 1437 also eliminated second degree murder liability based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine.

Now an eligible defendant, previously convicted of felony murder, could be resentenced to another offense that the jury found defendant had committed.  Some defendants were released on the basis of having served the time of the new sentence.

Resentencing became and is still available if defendant neither killed nor intended to kill and was not a “major participant in the underlying felony [who] acted with reckless indifference to human life.” 

While this eligibility for resentencing (under Penal Code § 1172.6, renumbered from § 1170.95 effective June 30, 2022) may seem rather straightforward and clear, it really is not, particularly in light of decisions in People v. Banks (2015) 61 Cal. 4th 788 and People v. Clark (2016) 63 Cal. 4th 522, which provided substantial new meaning to what constitutes being a major participant (Banks) and what conduct constitutes reckless indifference to human life (Clark).  Specific examples of common conduct were discussed in each case.

These two cases, Banks and Clark, brought reason to reconsider felony murder convictions with special circumstance findings prior to 2015 by the jury that defendant was a major participant and/or who acted with “reckless indifference to human life” because in 2015, and later in 2016, California law changed on what constituted such conduct.

The Christopher Strong case, on appeal to the California Supreme Court, resulted in a ruling that has been praised as resolving the split among appellate districts on whether felony-murder special-circumstance findings categorically bar resentencing under 1437.  The court in Strong said they do not.

In addition, the Supreme Court offered a new, clearer presentation of what type of conduct falls within and outside the scope of 1437 relief, describing the types of conduct that could be evaluated as “on a spectrum of culpability” as the phrase was introduced by Banks, supra, at 794, 800.  By being from the California Supreme Court, it also was binding throughout the state, as compared to other lower court rulings that were only controlling within one appellate district or another.

In 2014, a jury in Sacramento County Superior Court convicted Mr. Strong of felony murder and the jury also found true felony-murder special-circumstance allegations that he was a “major participant” who acted “with reckless disregard to human life” within the meaning of Penal Code § 190.2(d).

After SB 1437 was passed, Mr. Strong sought resentencing under SB 1437 despite the jury findings that he was a major participant and despite the jury also finding that he acted “with reckless disregard to human life” because, he argued, the jury applied a different standard for finding this than is now the law, following Banks and Clark.

The trial court judge and the Second Appellate District disagreed.  The California Supreme Court reversed the trial court.  In doing so, it noted that in 2020, in In re Scroggins (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 667, the court had reached a similar conclusion, although Mr. Scroggins reached the Supreme Court via a habeas corpus petition on the same issue.

It is good to know a bit of the Christopher Strong case first, before immersing into the reasoning that the California Supreme Court offered.  In 2007, Mr. Strong and an accomplice attempted to rob a local drug dealer in his home.  During the robbery, Strong’s accomplice shot a friend of the drug dealer and the friend’s infant son.  In 2014, a jury convicted Strong of first-degree murder with multiple-murder and felon-murder special circumstances.  Strong was then sentenced to two terms of life without the possibility of parole plus an additional 36 years.

Strong was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole because the jury found true that Strong was a “major participant” in the underlying felony.  A “major participant” in such a felony murder is also eligible for the death penalty, but this was not Strong’s sentence.

Turning to how the Supreme Court found special-circumstance findings not to be a categorical bar, the Court explained that issue preclusion, also known as collateral estoppel, really does not apply here because the requirements for its application is that it “comports with fairness and sound public policy.” Vandenberg v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal. 4th 815, 835. 

However, as the U.S. Supreme Court explained, “[A] judicial declaration intervening between the two proceedings may so change the legal atmosphere as to render the rule of collateral estoppel inapplicable.”  Commissioner v. Sunner (1948) 333 U.S. 591, 600.  The California Supreme Court then held that Banks and Clark “represent the sort of significant change that has traditionally been though to warrant reexamination of an earlier-litigated issue.” 

Therefore, collateral estoppel cannot apply and such prior special circumstance findings thankfully had the right to be reexamined under Banks and Clark.

For more information about SB 1437 resentencing, please click on the following articles:
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