The First District Court of Appeal in Oakland has unanimously determined to reverse the decision of two lower courts to effectively overturn a murder charge against Jamie Thomas in the death of Samuel Navarro. This higher appeals court decision was made on the basis that jurors in the original trial were not given the option to consider that Thomas had acted in a fit of passion. Thus, the second-degree-murder charge against him (for which he has already been sentenced 40 years to life) has been overturned.
The original incident happened in 2007 in Oakland, on Pearl Street – a traditionally peaceful neighborhood. It began with a complaint concerning Thomas’s car blocking the Navarro’s own. A series of arguments followed, with one ending in several men ganging up on Thomas, beating him. Testimony revealed that, at that point, Thomas retrieved a rifle from his car – at which point, a threatening Navarro dove for the weapon and Thomas fired. The original Alameda County jury’s decision was that Thomas had not been acting in self-defense and he was convicted of second-degree murder. In 2012, an appeals court upheld this decision, including new arguments from the defense that hearing Thomas’s own rap lyrics, which encouraged violent random shootings, had unduly prejudiced the jurors. However, they were not allowed to consider a manslaughter verdict at the time and this is the key sticking point for the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Importantly, the difference between murder and manslaughter is difficult to decipher in California law. The main dissimilarity between the two is planning; in order to prove murder, the prosecution must be able to show that there was forethought in the crime. This, if Thomas indeed acted in the heat of passion, a voluntary manslaughter charge would be more fitting and the penalties lessened to a great degree ( 3, 6, or 11 years in state prison versus the 40 years that Thomas has been sentenced).