First Degree Murder

California State Supreme Court Rules on Getaway Drivers

Until quite recently, the driver of a getaway car involved in an armed robbery with fatalities could not only be tried and convicted of murder, but could also have been put to death by the state.  Now, in a unanimous decision, the California state Supreme Court has determined that getaway drivers may no longer be considered a capital crime.  The original case before the court involved the robbery of a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles.  During the course of the incident, a security guard was shot and killed.  An individual man was responsible for driving the getaway car, but, the court says, he could not have known that the robbery would end in death and, therefore, could not be accused of murder, nor be given a life sentence without parole or be subject to California’s death penalty.

This marks a significant moment in the history of California law.  Although it is certain that the getaway driver involved in the occurrence at the marijuana dispensary will spend a lengthy period of time in prison, this is due more to the fact that he had priors than the one particular case at hand.  In addition, California defense attorneys and defendants in similar cases have cause for hope that the newly composed state Supreme Court may be a but more open-minded when it comes to fairness from a legal perspective.

The original sentencing guidelines originate from a ballot measure that passed in 1990.  This ballot measure created sentencing guidelines that included a death sentence or life without parole for anyone who could be proven an accomplice in a crime involving a fatality, even when there was no solid proof that the individual knew that there would be a death.

Juvenile Murder Conviction Overturned Due to Officer Denial of Attorney (CA Penal Code 187)

You may already know that juvenile offenders are treated differently than adults, even when they have committed the same crime.  You may not be aware, however, that a Second District Court of Appeal recently overturned the murder conviction (CA Penal Code 187) of a 13-year-old boy because, as it turns out, when he asked investigators in the case, “Could I have an attorney?  Because that’s not me,” they didn’t take that as a request for an attorney.

This is one instance in which the spirit of the law was ignored and the letter of the law might have been used for the sole benefit of the prosecutors’ interpretation of the letter of the law.  This is an important decision; the boy has already been tried and convicted of 3 separate murders, all of which he confessed to after having been denied legal representation.  Judge Gail Feuer and 2 other Superior Court justices determined that the confession must now be thrown out, as the police officers involved with the questioning of the boy ignored his request for a lawyer.

If you’re wondering what the legal precedent for this is, it’s the United States Supreme Court ruling that officers of the law repeat a phrase from each time they arrest someone, it’s the 1966 Miranda ruling and it is meant to inform anyone who is taken in by police of their rights as a citizen.  Clearly this boy’s rights were not given due respect and this recent court decision seems to agree with this perspective.  Whether he was an adult or not is beside the point.  It is possible, no likely, that prosecutors will, at this point, simply re-try the case and attempt to gather more evidence against the youth, including finding avenues that will allow them to use his confession against him in other ways.


Alameda County D.A. Office Seeks Indictment in Cases Involving the Mentally Ill (CA Penal Code 1370)

When, in 2012, John Doe 1 was arrested for his part in the Oikos University massacre and John Doe 2 (name withheld in order to protect the privacy of the accused) was accused of a murder in the Berkeley hills, there seemed to be little debate as to whether either of these two men should be released, perhaps ever.  Yet, there is something to think about here when it comes to the treatment of mentally ill defendants, especially those who might never make any kind of meaningful recovery.

Recently, the Alameda County district attorney’s office has sought grand jury indictments in both the above-mentioned cases.  The central question from the public has been: Why?  Why is it necessary to procure an indictment against persons who will likely spend the rest of their lives in an institution anyway?  Normally, persons who suffer delusions, hallucinations, and/ or other similar experiences, are deemed unfit for trial.  Prosecutors are now seeking an indictment in order to put into place something called a “Murphy Conservatorship,” a legal maneuver that prevents seriously mentally ill patients who are not fit for trial from being released (CA Penal Code 1370 “Incompetent to Stand Trial”). This is meant to protect both the public and the individual in question.  Under a Murphy Conservatorship, a defendant may be held indefinitely if it is believed that they still present a “substantial danger of physical harm to others.”

Prosecutors in Alameda County argue that, as a Murphy Conservatorship involves getting an indictment, it also means that a trial may eventually occur.  In other words, the county wishes to maintain its right to bring mentally ill persons to trial, if any kind of meaningful recovery occurs.  Others, however, would argue that this step is unnecessary and a violation of the mentally ill defendant’s rights.  The only reason for obtaining an indictment, it seems, is to make things easier for prosecuting attorneys handling the case.


Isla Vista Murder Spree May Change the Way Police Respond (CA Penal Code 187)

It’s been over a week since John Doe (name withheld in order to protect the privacy of the accused) went on a rage-fueled killing spree in Isla Vista, leaving lives and families destroyed in his wake.  The incident has left the public with quite a few questions, especially since it is now known that his parents were aware of the melancholy and violent videos he’d posted on YouTube.  More importantly, law enforcement officials spoke to him 3 weeks before the attacks and his subsequent suicide.  Based on a report in SFGate, the sheriff’s deputies that spoke to him did not check to see whether he owned guns, 2 guns were registered to him at that time.  Additionally, the police did not bother to check out the YouTube videos posted by him, even though his parents had alerted them to their existence.

Could this terrible string of senseless murders have been prevented?  Californians are asking the same questions that they did in 1969 when Tatiana Tarasoff was murdered by a fellow student (CA Penal Code 187), Prosenjit Poddar, after the police were instructed twice to pick him up and take him into custody so that he could be involuntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.  The issues are clearly a bit different in this new case, but the actions of the police are similar. The police spoke to Poddar as well and he was able to convince them, just like John Doe, that there was nothing for them to worry about.  They were convinced, but they were also wrong to take the word of an individual over the evidence or behest of a professional or parent.

The deputies questioned him about the videos, though they had not seen them and accepted his explanation that he was simply a disgruntled college student blowing off some steam. However, clearly he was serious as he stabbed his three roommates to death and then drove off in his BMW toward a local sorority house, killing 6 people total by the time he shot himself.  California citizens and lawmakers are now considering, not only a full review of what occurred in this particular case, but also changes in how such situations are managed.  They ask whether or not the subjective viewpoints of one or two police officers are good enough.  What real changes will result remains to be seen.


San Mateo County: Social Media a Factor in 16 Indictments in The Sunny Day 2012 Gang Murders (CA Penal Code 186.22(a), 186.22(b) and 190.2)

A grand jury in San Mateo County has handed down 16 indictments in the ‘Sunny Day’ gang-related slayings that occurred in 2012.  So, what makes this case different than other crimes of its kind?  Social media outlets were a large part of local law enforcement officials’ means of determining exactly who was involved.

In this current age, one where Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are much a part of nearly everyone’s life, it seems that those seeking to break the law have broken a cardinal rule, they advertised their actions for all to see.  True, the investigation that led to these arrests lasted for over a year and included other means of surveillance (wire taps, search warrants, and cellular phone tracking), but the case may never have been cracked if a special code (“It’s a sunny day in East Palo Alto”) hadn’t been used to alert others to who was responsible.

Law enforcement officials say that at least 3 different gangs were involved in the ‘Sunny Day’ series of crimes, Sac Street, the Taliban, and Da Vill.  These are all gangs operating in the area of East Palo Alto commonly referred to as the ‘Village.’  At least 4 people were killed and 9 different gang members have been charged with murder with special enhancements. 

Enhancements in a murder case can mean a significant difference when it comes to sentencing; these are all related to the “STEP” Act (California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (CA Penal Code 186.22(a) and 186.22(b)).  The former could mean up to an additional 3 years in state prison, while the latter could mean you face up to 25-years-to-life.  Additionally, special circumstances charges (CA Penal Code 190.2) of ‘lying in wait’ have been tacked on to each of the 9 individuals’ charges.  This alone could mean life in prison or the death penalty.


Anniversary of Genovese Slaying Reminds of Good Samaritan Laws (CA Health and Safety Code 1799.102)

50 years later, Kitty Genovese’s story is still discussed in many circles, from coffee shops to college ethics courses.  When the 28-year-old bar manager was slain in New York City on March 13th, 1964, it was a random crime.  Winston Moseley had simply been looking for someone to kill and Kitty wandered across his path at just the wrong time.    The reason that Genovese’s murder is still a topic of debate is the way in which it occurred.  Moseley stabbed her in the back before she could reach her Queens apartment complex.  Then, 38 of her own neighbors did nothing while they watched for the half an hour it took her to die, and while Moseley traveled all the way back to his car, stabbed her numerous times, and raped her.  No one called the police or attempted to help her, except for one concerned resident who managed to shout out at Moseley from the safety of his window.

To be sure, there were positive outcomes for future victims of crime of all sorts, the least of which was the development of the 911 calling system.  In the state of California, as in many other states in the Union, there are now “Good Samaritan” laws in place that encourage bystanders to get involved during an emergency without fear of being sued (CA Health and Safety Code 1799.102).  However, there is little evidence that these protective measures have caused a great change in the way that people behave, especially as the majority of citizens are reluctant to get involved, even when a person’s life may be on the line.  Studies concerning the psychological stance ‘bystander apathy’ (otherwise known as the ‘bystander effect’) have, for example, produced mixed results.  Moseley remains in prison to this day, at age 79.


Juvenile Suspect Charged as Adult in Santa Rosa Murder (CA Penal Code 187)

15-year-old juvenile (name withheld to protect the anonymity of the accused) has been charged with murder (CA Penal Code 187) for having allegedly shot a man at a party in Santa Rosa.  Local law enforcement officials were called out to an apartment complex on Piner Road in the early hours of Tuesday morning.  Witnesses claim that the juvenile and another 20-year-old  (also of Santa Rosa) got into a verbal altercation during the party that quickly escalated and then moved to a nearby parking lot.  He now stands accused of shooting the victim once in the chest and once in the arm; the victim expired later at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

In cases such as these, there is always a debate over whether to prosecute the alleged perpetrator as a juvenile or as an adult.  It’s an important decision, one that can mean the difference between a number of years in a juvenile detention facility and the death penalty.  So, what is taken into account when prosecutors make this determination?

First, it is interesting to note that persons as young as 14 years of age can be tried as an adult in the state of California. However, only a person 16 years of age or older can be held in adult prison facility.  Once in the adult system, they no longer have access to important resources that they would if in the juvenile system. This means no access to common rehabilitative services like educational and vocational programs.  Second, juveniles tried as adults are treated as just that, adults who can be sentenced to the same amount of prison time and other punishments as their older counterparts.  If he is convicted of murder, he may face life in prison or the death penalty.


Oakland Man Convicted of Murder and Weapon Enhancements (CA Penal Code 12021.55 – 12022.55)

27-year old Oakland resident (name withheld for privacy) has been convicted of the shooting death of 20-year-old woman from Alameda in what police suspect was an Ecstasy deal gone wrong. The victim’s boyfriend was also injured in the incident.  Authorities claim that the he made a phone call to the victim the same day of the shooting in order to procure Ecstasy tablets from him. They also claim that, when the victim arrived at the drop off point, the he began wildly shooting at them.  He has now been convicted of murder and attempted murder (including a weapons enhancement).

What will happen when he’s sentenced and what does a ‘weapons enhancement entail? In California, the use of a gun (or even the possession of one) is considered to be an important element in murder charges. This is pursuant to (CA Penal Code 12021.55-12022.55), which states that a traditional prison sentence may be ‘enhanced’ or lengthened if anyone involved in an alleged crime either 1) has a gun in their possession during the commission of said crime or 2) uses a gun during the commission of said crime.  For his particular case, the applicable section of the code is (CA Penal Code 12022.5) as he personally used a gun to shoot at both.  He may also be facing enhancements pursuant to (CA Penal Code 12022.55), discharging a firearm from inside a vehicle during the commission of a crime. It is important to understand, however, that even if two or more potential enhancements may apply to your case, a California judge is only allowed to sentence you to the longest amount of time in prison for any one enhancement.  In other words, sentencing enhancements are not cumulative.  This particular enhancement is only one year.


Santa Ana Mother Accused of Murder with Special Circumstances (CA Penal Code 187-199)

For most of the country, dealing with custody battles amidst a divorce is customary.  During the process, the question as to whether children are better off with one parent than the other arises.

Both seemed to have typical problems in regards to the custody of their two children, 13-year-old and 9-year-old (names withheld for privacy). For over a year, he had difficulty seeing his children, as she would not allow it.  However, he was granted full custody of both children recently and expected their mother to return them to him in Georgia, where he now resides. Instead, law enforcement officials found her alone in a crashed car in Orange County this weekend, with no sign of the children anywhere.  As it turns out, she informed officials that her children’s bodies were in a hotel in Santa Ana.

The mother has been charged with murder with special circumstances, or “capital murder” (CA Penal Code 187-199), if convicted, she faces the death penalty.  Yet, the media seems to have focused only on the pain and suffering of the father and not on possibilities for her defense.  Her ex-husband seems to have been an absent father by all accounts, often failing to pay child support payments and spending most of his time at work as a contractor in Afghanistan.  Whatever the dispute between them, in order for prosecutors to successfully convict her of murder with special circumstances, they must be able to prove to a jury that ‘special circumstances’ apply in her case.  These ‘special circumstances’ could be anything from murder via poisoning to multiple murder convictions.  Information has yet to be released regarding the tragic circumstances of the children’s deaths.


Palo Alto Resident Forgoes Miranda Rights After DUI (CA vehicle Code 23152)

If you’ve ever watched a television crime drama, then you know that there are certain rights that individuals have as citizens of the United States (5th Amendment to the United States Constitution).  One of these rights comes into play when you are arrested on suspicion of a crime, the right to remain silent in order to prevent from incriminating yourself.

However, an unidentified man (48 years old) arrested on suspicion of DUI in Redwood City recently ended up leading police to the discovery of the body of a woman in his shared East Palo Alto home.  Evidently, the man was speaking to police approximately 7 hours after his arrest and “spontaneously” told the police about the body during questioning.  Although the unidentified man has not been booked on murder charges, police have already deemed the woman’s death a homicide.

This could be a case of someone who did not properly understand his right to avoid self-incrimination.  In the landmark 1966 case, Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that any U.S. police officer or law enforcement agent must warn suspects before they are interrogated that any statements they make may be used as evidence against them in future proceedings.  If a person is properly “Mirandized,” including being informed of their right to consult with an attorney before and/or during police questioning, then whatever information they reveal becomes fair game if they choose to ignore this warning.

Unfortunately, this unnamed man was either not properly read his rights or made the decision to forego them.  In any case, this is a good example of what not to do when you are placed under police custody.  The smarter option is to seek the counsel of a good attorney who can prevent you from making dire mistakes that may come back to haunt you in a future trial or hearing.