Weeks after a new state law took effect that lets accomplices convicted of murder seek early release from prison, dozens of inmates have petitioned San Diego County prosecutors and the courts to have their cases reviewed.
The law, which makes it harder for prosecutors to charge accomplices in homicides with murder, passed the Legislature last year and took effect Jan. 1. It’s also retroactive and could mean the resentencing of as many as 800 inmates in the state, according to Re:store Justice, which backed the legislation.
Why this matters
California lawmakers continue to change criminal justice laws in an effort to make it more equitable and less burdensome on minorities and women.
As of Monday, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office had received about 80 petitions from inmates under the law. Most of them were filed without help from an attorney, Assistant District Attorney David Greenberg said.
The office believes nearly half of the petitions are from inmates ineligible under the new guidelines, in part because “they were the actual killer or were found to be a major participant and received a sentence of life without parole,” Greenberg said.
The county Public Defender’s Office also is continuing to review cases to find accomplices who may be eligible for early release from prison.
“Right now, it’s a free-for-all,” Deputy Public Defender Troy Britt said in an email to inewsource.
His office has not yet asked that any former clients be resentenced and is “trying to make sure that we file petitions responsibly,” Britt said.
Supporters of the the legislation had argued the state’s old law allowed accomplices to be convicted of murder when they didn’t actually do the killing. Now, prosecutors have to prove accomplices planned or directly helped in the killing to get a felony murder conviction.
California released its first inmate under the new law on Jan. 18: Adnan Khan was convicted for his participation in a 2003 robbery-turned-murder in Antioch. He had maintained he didn’t know a weapon was going to be used in the robbery. The Contra Costa County district attorney did not oppose his petition.
“There is a lot of hysteria that a lot of murderers will get out, and that’s false,” said Kate Chatfield, policy director for Re:Store Justice, which has been educating prisoners on how the new law may apply to them.
Chatfield said the law will only affect sentences for those who didn’t actually plan or do the killing.
“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” she said.
District attorneys in Los Angeles and Solano counties have challenged the law’s constitutionality, saying the Legislature didn’t have the authority to change the felony murder law without approval from state voters.
Greenberg said San Diego County’s district attorney, Summer Stephan, also intends to challenge the law, but that may not happen for several weeks.
A Superior Court judge ruled against Solano County’s challenge, but the decision is being appealed, Chief Deputy District Attorney Sharon Henry said.
We’ll let you know when big things happen.