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SF to review homicide cases after California redefines felony murder

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Public Defender Jeff Adachi and District Attorney George Gascon both say they plan to review murder cases after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law narrowing the cases that can be charged with murder. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A day after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to narrow who can be charged with murder in California, the Public Defender’s Office said Monday it will seek reduced sentences for those convicted under the previous law.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi said his office will review all of its homicide cases to determine which resulted in a conviction under the felony murder rule. The rule lets prosecutors charge an accomplice to a felony like robbery with murder if the crime resulted in death, no matter if the person knew about the killing.

On Sunday, the governor signed Senate Bill 1437, from Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, to restrict the rule effective Jan. 1 to those who intentionally assisted the actual killer or were a “major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

“We’re going to act immediately,” said Adachi, whose office plans to petition the court to reduce sentences and vacate convictions reached under the rule. “The felony murder rule has been extended far beyond what was ever envisioned.”

Max Szabo, a spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon, said the District Attorney’s Office also plans to review homicide cases from the past and present to determine whether resentencing is needed.

“The felony murder rule is just one theory of murder, and in many cases there are multiple theories that are applicable,” Szabo said. “Where the facts and evidence dictate that a defendant could only have been convicted pursuant to the felony murder rule, we will be assessing what remedies are appropriate.”

SB 1437 includes guidelines for defendants to petition the courts for sentencing and requires both public defenders and district attorneys across the state to participate, but both offices in San Francisco said they would actively review cases for resentencing independent of defendants initiating the process.

The Public Defender’s Office has already identified three murder cases currently underway that could be reduced or resentenced, but did not disclose the names of the defendants involved.

On the state level, proponents of the bill estimate that hundreds of inmates are currently serving time under the rule. Neko Wilson, the brother of an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, is one of those inmates.

“We don’t know how many lives will be impacted with this, but hopefully no family will have to go through what my family went through, what I went through, what my brother went through, if they didn’t kill anyone,” said attorney Jacque Wilson, whose brother has served nearly a decade behind bars in Fresno.

Neko Wilson is facing two murder charges for allegedly helping plan a marijuana robbery that went awry. He was charged despite not being at the scene of the crime.

Jacque Wilson said his brother is likely to plead to lesser charges and be released with time served as a result of the legislation. He was facing the death penalty.

“He wants out,” Jacque Wilson said.“To go from the death penalty to walking out the door, to go from life to credit with time served, that is unheard of.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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