Fresno County Superior Court Judge Brian Alvarez has ruled that a change made by the Legislature to the state’s felony murder law is unconstitutional.

His ruling adds to the growing divide about whether SB 1437, which was signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, violates the state constitution.

“While this (law) is well-intentioned, as it is written, it is deeply flawed and poses a significant risk to the safety of our communities.” — Fresno County DA Lisa Smittcamp

Some California judges have ruled the law constitutional. Others have not. And some district attorney offices  — San Francisco County, for example —aren’t opposing inmates’ petitions.

Legal experts predict that the California Supreme Court will have the final say on SB 1437.

The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release Wednesday that it has received nearly 100 petitions from inmates seeking to have murder sentences changed based on SB 1437.

Judge Dismisses Petition by Convicted Murderer

In a written ruling Wednesday, Alvarez dismissed a petition filed by Charles Jones to have his first-degree murder conviction reversed and his sentence reduced.

Alvarez found that SB 1437 unconstitutionally amended Proposition 7 which was approved by 71% of voters in 1978, and Proposition 115, which was passed by 57% of voters in 1990.

Proposition 7 (Death Penalty Act) expanded the instances in which the death penalty or life sentences without the possibility of parole could be ordered. Proposition 115 (Crime Victims Justice Reform Act) expanded the definition of first-degree murder to cover additional circumstances.

Skinner Wrote SB 1437

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat representing the East Bay, authored SB 1437, which restricted the culpability of those who aided and abetted a felony murder. The law also allowed those convicted of murder to petition the court to have their convictions reversed and their sentences reduced.

If Alvarez had granted Jones’ petition, his sentence would have been reduced to five years, and he would have been immediately released from prison.

A jury convicted Jones of first-degree murder in 1993 in the gunshot killing of Abdo Ahmed Ali during a robbery of the Westside Market the previous year. Jones received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. His subsequent appeals of the conviction and sentence failed.

Smittcamp and 41 Other DAs Opposed SB 1437

Fresno County DA Lisa Smittcamp and 41 other county district attorneys asked Brown to veto the bill last September.

“While this bill is well-intentioned, as it is written, it is deeply flawed and poses a significant risk to the safety of our communities,” Smittcamp and the other DAs told Brown in a letter.

About Judge Alvarez

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Alvarez to the bench in 2009. He is a military veteran who worked in the Fresno County DA’s office as an investigator and returned as a prosecutor after graduating from San Joaquin College of Law. He served seven years in the state Attorney General’s Office, rising to a supervising attorney before becoming a judge.

 

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