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California Supreme Court Vacates LWOP Sentence After Its Recent Cases Clarifying ‘Special Circumstance’ Murder

A decade ago, a jury convicted Willie Scoggins of first-degree murder and robbery and further found that a “special circumstance” applied to allow the Sacramento County Superior Court to impose a LWOP sentence. That special circumstance was that he was a major participant in the crime and that he should have known an accomplice had a propensity for violence and would have used a gun, even though Scoggins didn’t plan for the robbery to be armed. He exhausted all of his appeals and filed numerous habeas corpus petitions, all without any success.

But in 2016, Scoggins filed a habeas petition again challenging the special circumstance finding, after the California Supreme Court decided People v. Clark, 372 P.3d 811 (Cal. 2016). In Clark, the Supreme Court ruled that “the mere fact of a defendant’s awareness that a gun will be used in the felony is not sufficient to establish reckless indifference to human life,” which is a requirement for the special circumstance finding. Scoggins argued that the Clark decision applies to him because, while he planned the robbery and even the beating of the victim, he had no idea an accomplice would use a gun to kill him.

The crime happened after Scoggins was duped into buying what he thought were boxes of televisions but were really boxes of garbage. Thinking he was swindled, Scoggins planned for his friends to buy some televisions from this con man and then beat and rob him to get Scoggins’ money back. Scoggins stayed away from the scene as it played out, in case the man recognized him and balked.

The beating and robbery went off as planned, but one of Scoggins’ friends pulled a gun and shot the man dead. Scoggins was charged with the murder, and the prosecution argued that he was equally responsible for the shooting. The special circumstance was that the murder was committed during the robbery because a principal in the crime was armed.

The Supreme Court issued an order to show cause returnable to the court of appeal on whether its decisions in Clark and People v. Banks, 351 P.3d 330 (Cal. 2015), apply to Scoggins to allow another challenge, and if so, whether the special circumstance could still apply. A divided court of appeal found the cases apply retroactively to allow Scoggins’ petition to move forward but also found that because he knew about his friend’s propensity for violence and didn’t take steps to prevent the shooting the special circumstance still apply.

Scoggins appealed, and the Supreme Court granted review. There are two criteria to be met for a special circumstance to apply: (1) major participation in the crime and (2) reckless indifference to human life. The first requirement was met, the Court and both parties agreed, but the second was in dispute.

Banks and Clark narrowed the special circumstance statute. In Banks, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987), shaped the statute. In Tison, the high court held that the death penalty is justified for “major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life.” Those are the two elements of the special circumstance statute under California law.

The Court in Scoggins’ case took a look at another U.S. Supreme Court case on the “other end of the spectrum.” In Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), the high court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on a getaway driver during an armed robbery where death resulted. The Court said Enmund was a minor participant and didn’t intend to kill nor did he have the requisite culpable mental state — that is, Enmunddidn’t act with reckless indifference to human life.

And neither did Scoggins, the Court concluded. “Reckless indifference” requires a “willingness to kill (or to assist another in killing) to achieve a distinct aim, even if the defendant does not specifically desire that death as the outcome of his actions,” the Court explained. Mere awareness of a risk of death is not enough to meet this requirement, the Court said.

First, Scoggins didn’t use a gun. He didn’t even know a gun would be used, the Court noted. In fact, “Scoggins planned for the assault and robbery of [the victim] to be unarmed,” the Court pointed out. He also wasn’t at the scene to stop the shooting. The prosecutor had argued Scoggins should have stopped the shooting and therefore deserved the special circumstance.

Applying Banks and Clark, the California Supreme Court concluded that based on the facts in the present case, Scoggins does not qualify for the special circumstance finding to impose LWOP.

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Related legal case

In re Willies Scoggins



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