In 2018, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed into law Senate Bill No. 1437 (Senate Bill 1437), legislation that prospectively amended the mens rea requirements for the offense of murder and restricted the circumstances under which a person can be liable for murder under the felony-murder rule or the natural and probable consequences doctrine. Specifically, SB1437 established a procedure permitting certain qualifying persons who were previously convicted of 1) felony murder or 2) murder under the natural and probable consequences (NPC) doctrine to petition the courts that sentenced them to vacate their murder convictions and obtain re-sentencing on any remaining counts.
In the last two years many cases have been filed in all different California Jurisdictions regarding the application of SB1437. In a recent California Supreme Court case [12/17/2020 People v. Gentile, case number S256698] SB 1437 was found to Bar Second degree Murder convictions Under the Natural and Probable Consequences (NPC) Doctrine. A unanimous decision: Justice Liu authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Corrigan, Cuéllar, Kruger, Groban, and Grimes concurred.
FACT AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND:
The case before the CA Supreme Court involves the murder conviction of Joseph Gentile, who was charged in the beating death of a restaurant caretaker in Indio. At trial, the court instructed the jury on three separate theories of first-degree murder, one of which was that he aided and abetted his ex-wife in a felony assault whose natural and probable consequence was death.
In Gentile I, the Court of Appeal observed that the superior court “instructed the jury at length that it could convict defendant of first degree murder” under a natural and probable consequences theory. (Gentile I, supra, E064822.) The court said “[t]he fact the jury did not find that the defendant used a deadly or dangerous weapon in the commission of the offense supports an inference that the jury convicted him on [a natural and probable consequences] theory” instead of viewing him as the direct perpetrator of the crime……….
……The jury then convicted Gentile of first degree murder and found not true that he personally used a deadly weapon. The prosecution dismissed the prison prior, and the court sentenced Gentile to 25 years to life in prison.
The Court of Appeal reversed Gentile’s first-degree murder conviction, and on remand the prosecution reduced his charge to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
The court found it “probable that the jury convicted
defendant on an unauthorized legal theory” because the trial
court had instructed the jury on the natural and probable
….The Court of Appeal remanded the case for the prosecution to decide whether to “retry [Gentile] for the first degree murder under theories other than natural and probable consequences” or to accept reduction of Gentile’s conviction to second degree murder. (Ibid.) It did not reach Gentile’s other claims. On remand, the prosecution elected to accept a reduction to second degree murder, and Gentile was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life.
After the governor signed SB 1437, Gentile appealed again, arguing the bill applied retroactively to his conviction and eliminated second-murder liability under a natural and probable consequences doctrine. An appeals court rejected Gentile’s argument, and the Supreme Court granted review.
Under the natural and probable consequences doctrine, an accomplice is guilty not only of the offense they directly aided or abetted, but also of any other offense the direct perpetrator commits that was the “natural and probable consequence” of the crime the accomplice aided and abetted.
Culpability under the doctrine doesn’t require the accomplice to share the direct perpetrator’s intent. SB 1437 thus aimed to make it harder to convict someone for murder when that person didn’t intend to kill or didn’t act with conscious disregard for human life.
The “most natural meaning” of the SB 1437 provision at issue, construed in the context of the bill as a whole and of the Penal Code, “bars a conviction for first or second degree murder under a natural and probable consequences theory,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the Supreme Court.
With SB 1437, the Legislature intended to restrict murder culpability outside the felony murder rule “to persons who personally possess malice aforethought,” Liu wrote, and the natural and probable consequences doctrine “is incompatible with this requirement because an aider and abettor need not personally possess malice, express or implied, to be convicted of second degree murder” under that theory.
“Apart from the Court of Appeal decision in this case, every published Court of Appeal opinion to address the issue has concluded that Senate Bill 1437 eliminates natural and probable consequences liability for murder regardless of degree,” Liu wrote, citing seven appellate cases. “We agree with these authorities.”
SB 1437’s ameliorative provisions, however, don’t apply on direct appeal to nonfinal convictions obtained before the law became effective, such as Gentile’s, the court held. It concluded that such convictions can be challenged on SB 1437 grounds only through a petition filed in the sentencing court under Penal Code section 1170.95.
The court remanded Gentile’s case to the lower court to affirm Gentile’s second-degree murder conviction without prejudice to any petition for relief that he may file under section 1170.95.
Going forward, the parties agree that Gentile has made “a
prima facie showing that he . . . is entitled to relief” (§ 1170.95,
subd. (c)) in light of the Attorney General’s concessions and the
Court of Appeal’s determination in Gentile I that it is “probable”
the jury relied on a natural and probable consequences theory
in finding him guilty of murder. In their section 1170.95 briefing, the parties are free to litigate what bearing, if any, doctrines of estoppel or preclusion may have in light of those prior concessions and the Court of Appeal’s determination in Gentile I.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed. The matter is remanded to that court to affirm Gentile’s second degree murder conviction without prejudice to any petition for relief that Gentile may file under section 1170.95.
Editor’s OPINION: This is a great outcome from the Published California Supreme Court case. It is a very significant case becasue it determines that liability for the crime of second degree murder in California under the natural and probable consequences (NPC) doctrine has been eliminated.