California Supreme Court: prisoners must get lawyer when challenging convictions for killings committed by others
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California Supreme Court: prisoners must get lawyer when challenging convictions for killings committed by others

The California Supreme Court held Monday that prisoners are entitled to a lawyer before a trial court can consider their record of conviction in determining whether the prisoners may challenge their murder convictions for killings committed by others.

This case originated in the trial court when the defendant Vince Lewis filed a petition, under a newly enacted law that took effect in January 2019, requesting counsel to challenge his murder conviction under that same law. The trial court summarily denied the petition through a minute order and Lewis appealed.

The new law in question was California Senate Bill No. 1437, which limited the scope of the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine and felony murder to prevent liability from being imposed on a person “who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

In other words, the Act only permits a murder conviction for someone who intended, directed, and aided in the killing or acted with “reckless indifference to human life.” Lewis was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 2012 for the shooting of a woman by another gang member while Lewis waited in a car. The victim, Darsy Noriega, was also a gang member apparently killed for disloyalty to the gang.

Section 1170.95 of the Act details the procedures to be followed when filing a petition challenging the conviction. As long as the procedures are followed and as long as the petitioner specifically requests counsel, the trial court is obligated to provide that petitioner with a lawyer before holding a hearing on whether to vacate the conviction and recall the sentence, and before relying on a petitioner’s conviction record.

In this case, the trial court neither held a hearing nor appointed counsel and summarily denied Lewis’s petition stating “Lewis did not make a prima facie case for resentencing under Senate Bill 1437 because … he ‘would still be found guilty with a valid theory of first degree murder.'”

The court of appeals affirmed, rejecting Lewis’s claims that the trial court erred by not appointing counsel and relying on the record of conviction to deny his petition. The California Supreme Court reversed, concluding that:

the statutory language and legislative intent of § 1170.95 make clear that petitioners are entitled to the appointment of counsel upon the filing of a facially sufficient petition and that only after the appointment of counsel and the opportunity for briefing may the superior court consider the record of conviction to determine whether “the petitioner makes a prima facie showing that he or she is entitled to relief.”

The author of the Act and California State Senator Nancy Skinner submitted a court filing on behalf of Lewis stating that inmates were incapable of handling complex legal matters on their own with some unable to read or possessing limited English comprehension, adding that some even have intellectual disabilities or are diagnosed with mental disorders.

Attorney for Lewis, Robert Bacon, welcomed the judgment stating that the state legislature designed the Act with the intention to apply it as broadly as possible and to identify people who should be serving smaller sentences for lesser crimes that they actually committed as opposed to murders they did not.