A state senator who authored a new law reducing the legal exposure of defendants accused of aiding and abetting a murder said Tuesday she’s confident that an appellate panel will overturn a ruling by an Orange County judge who declared it unconstitutional.
“As the author of SB 1437, which reformed California’s unfair felony-murder rule, I look forward to the state appellate court overturning this wrong-headed decision by an Orange County judge,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
Kate Chatfield, co-founder and policy director of Re:store Justice, co-sponsored the law.
“SB 1437 is lawful and fixed the unjust and outdated felony murder rule in California that allowed people to be sentenced to life in prison for crimes they did not commit,” Chatfield said. “The bipartisan bill was passed by the California legislature, signed into law by (former) Gov. Jerry Brown, and has been supported and found constitutional by judges and district attorneys across the state. We have been profoundly moved by the stories of the men and women who have been re-sentenced and allowed to come home to their families after decades in prison.”
The advocates for the law noted that a few judges have issued rulings affirming its constitutionality. A handful of prosecutors throughout the state have also shown support for it, they said.
That group does not include Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
“We have about 100 convicted murderers who are applying to have their cases reconsidered in Orange County alone,” Spitzer said. “If you are an active participant in the murder but weren’t the one that actually pulled the trigger or stabbed with the knife doesn’t mean you aren’t dangerous and need to stay in prison. I think the voters would refuse to cut these type of murderers loose from prison back into our neighborhoods.”
The new law reduced the legal exposure of defendants accused of aiding and abetting a murder. Under the old law, someone along for a drive-by shooting, for instance, could be on the hook for first-degree murder, but the new law requires prosecutors to prove there was an intent to kill, the defendant was a major participant in the killing and behaved in a way that showed a reckless disregard for life.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett on Friday ruled SB 1437 was unconstitutional in the case against Jeffrey Tuli, 35, Aaron Jackson, 37, and Dejon Griffin, 35. They are charged with killing 24-year-old Maher Youself of La Mirada, who was gunned down about 10:30 p.m. on July 1, 2016, at a Buena Park gas station.
The three are charged with murder with a special circumstance allegation of murder during a robbery.
Buena Park police have alleged Yousef was targeted because he and another person he was with at the time of the shooting worked at a check cashing business.
Tuli, who is the accused triggerman, is facing the death penalty if convicted. Tuli, who is being tried separately, is next due in court April 12 in the North Justice Center in Fullerton.
Prickett ruled that the special circumstances murder law was approved by voters in propositions, so to overturn those laws, legislators had to do so with a supermajority tally instead of a simple majority as was done with SB 1437.
There have been conflicting rulings elsewhere in the state on the new law, so the state Supreme Court will likely have to decide the issue. Until that’s cleared up, the case against Jackson and Griffin will remain stalled, but the case against Tuli can proceed.