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SB 620 and SB 1393 Applied in Death Penalty Case

In California, after a sentence of death, there is an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court. 

In 2002, an Orange County jury convicted Tupoutoe Mataele of the November 1997 murder of Danell Johnson, the attempted murder of John Masubayashi and conspiracy to commit the murders of Johnson and Masubayashi, who were members of the Tiny Rascals criminal street gang.  Mataele was a member of the Sons of Samoa gang, but socialized with members of the Pinoy Real street gang.  The murder took place in Anaheim.

The jury found true a special circumstance that Mataele committed the murder while lying in wait (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(15), making it first degree murder and making him eligible for a death sentence.

The jury also found true an allegation that Mataele was armed with and personally used a firearm in the commission of each offense (Penal Code §§ 12022(a)(1), 12022.5(a)).  Allegations that Mataele suffered a prior strike conviction and a prior serious felony conviction were also found true (Penal Code §§ 667(a), 1170.12(a) – (d)). 

Following a penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death.  The judge also sentenced Mataele to a life term plus nine years for the attempted murder count, the firearm enhancements and the prior serious felony conviction.  The judge stayed the sentence on the conspiracy count pursuant to Penal Code § 654.

The California Supreme Court did an exhaustive review of the case facts.  The morning after the shooting, Mataele purchased a fake identification card and moved to a relative’s house in Salt Lake City, Utah, but returned to Southern California almost three years later and was arrested in Cerritos in mid-May 2000. 

In the sentencing phase of trial, Mataele presented history on his family history, background and character, brain activity and adjustment to prison.  A professor testified as an expert witness on Tongan culture and how Tongan parenting style is authoritarian and strict, adding that it is common for Tongan husbands to physically abuse their wives and children. 
Defendant and several of his family members described the emotional and physical abuse that occurred in Mataele’s household.  There was also testimony that Mataele witnessed the murder of his cousin, who he was very close to. 
A doctor testified regarding Mataele’s methamphetamine use and how it caused paranoia, irritability, impulsivity, psychosis and delusions from sustained use.

On appeal, there were more than a dozen issues raised by Mataele, but this article will narrow its scope to a discussion of just the sentencing issues involving new legal standards set forth by Senate Bill 620, effective January 1, 2018, giving judges authority to exercise discretion to dismiss firearm sentencing enhancements imposed under Penal Code § 12022.5, and Senate Bill 1393, effective January 1, 2019, amending Penal Code § 667(a) and Penal Code § 1385(b), permitting a judge authority to strike prior serious felony enhancements “in the interest of justice.”

At the time defendant was sentenced in 2002, the trial court judge was required to enhance the sentence under Penal Code § 12022.5(c) by three, four or ten years for personal use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and by five years for each qualifying prior serious felony conviction under Penal Code § 667(a).

The issue on appeal to the California Supreme Court was not whether such new laws were retractive to apply to Mataele, but whether remand to the trial court to reconsider such sentences was necessary because, as the Attorney General argued, the trial court judge indicated an intent not to strike the enhancements.

The California Supreme Court disagreed and ordered a limited remand for the trial court to reconsider such sentence enhancements given the new discretion 620 and 1393 allowed.  In this case, given the facts of how the murder and attempted murders took place and Mataele’s role in it, as well as his post-crime move to Utah for several years, we do not expect the judge to strike such enhancements.

For more information about Senate Bills 620 and 1393, please click on the following articles:
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