A Calaveras County Superior Court judge found a new state law that effectively eliminates the “felony murder rule” unconstitutional during a hearing on June 17.
California Senate Bill 1437 was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown last September and allows the vacating of conviction in an estimated 800 cases involving accomplices convicted of murder.
The law changed the concept of felony murder to include only those who directly kill a person, actively participate in the killing or are involved in the killing of an on-duty peace officer. Inmates across the state have already been freed based on the retroactive nature of the law, which no longer defines murder as a death occurring during the commission of another felony.
Calaveras County judge Timothy Healy is one of several superior court judges who have found SB 1437 unconstitutional based on arguments including its failure to secure a two-thirds majority vote in both bodies of the California State Legislature.
The ruling was made regarding the case of Daniel Rocha, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for the murder of 19-year-old Mokelumne Hill resident David Jessop.
Rocha and his accomplice, Donald Pinon, who both had gang affiliations and prior felony convictions, accused each other of burglarizing Jessop’s house and shooting him in his bed. However, investigators testified that gunpowder residue was found on Rocha’s hand.
The defendant, now 34, was not present in the courtroom during the June 17 hearing.
Although Rocha filed a petition under SB 1437 in February, his eligibility for release based on the new law was not discussed during the hearing, pending a ruling on the bill’s constitutionality.
During the hearing, Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones argued that SB 1437 unlawfully amended Propositions 115 and 7, which expanded the definition of and lengthened sentences for first degree murder, according to Jones.
Jones additionally argued that SB 1437 violates the “fundamental separation of powers” between the judicial and legislative branches of California government.
“The legislature can’t just vacate a final judgement,” Jones told the Enterprise.
Lastly, Jones argued that SB 1437 is in violation of Marsy’s Law, an article of the California Constitution which protects a victim’s right to be treated respectfully throughout the judicial process.
Despite a counter-argument by Rocha’s attorney Steven Cilenti that SB 1437 falls under the wider umbrella of statewide prison reform, Judge Healy deemed the law unconstitutional based on three of the four arguments presented by Jones.
“Painful consequences (for) innocent families of innocent victims implicitly makes this a political argument,” said Healy, who determined that he could not find the bill unconstitutional based on Marsy’s Law.
The presence of Jessop’s family in the courtroom during the ruling exemplified the impact on victims during the re-evaluation of murder cases under SB 1437.
“Do you think we want to come to this courtroom time and time again?” Jessop’s mother, Linda Jessop, asked the Enterprise following the decision.
Jessop expressed frustration over having to attend four additional court dates regarding Rocha’s case after being strung through the two years leading up to his conviction.
The single mother added that although she was “relieved” to hear the judge’s ruling, she was disappointed that it would not help more victims’ families, as every petition must be heard on a case-by-case basis.
“I’m very passionate about (SB 1437) and would like to see it go away,” Jessop said.
Jessop said she has written pleas for support from state legislators, but the response has been underwhelming.
“If the governor wants prisoners released, let them go live with him,” she said. “They shouldn’t be let out of prison.”
At least six other superior court judges have found SB 1437 unconstitutional based on one or more of the arguments Jones presented, Jones said. However, some attempts to challenge the law in other counties have been unsuccessful.
A superior court ruling can be overturned if taken to a higher court of law, and an appellate court ruling on a similar case could also affect the validity of the decision in Calaveras County, Jones added.
Still, Jones said he is “relieved and excited” about the outcome of the hearing.
“I’m thankful the court took the time to examine the issues,” Jones said. “I’m happy we got three out of the four arguments. All we needed was one.”