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California Supreme Court Announces SB 1437 Bars Second-Degree Murder Based on Natural and Probable Consequences Doctrine

Guillermo Saavedra was beaten to death with a stick and golf club. Saundra Roberts claimed her ex-husband Joseph Gentile, Jr. did it. But Gentile claimed he had gotten into a fistfight with Saavedra after Roberts informed Gentile that Saavedra had raped her. Gentile contended that after the fistfight, Roberts picked up the stick and club and beat Saavedra to death. Gentile was tried for the murder with an alleged enhancement that he personally used a deadly weapon.

The trial judge instructed the jury on three separate theories of first-degree murder: (1) that Gentile was the direct perpetrator of the murder, (2) that Gentile directly aided and abetted Roberts in the commission of murder, and (3) Gentile aided and abetted Roberts in the commission of felony assault with a deadly weapon, the natural and probable consequence of which was death. During deliberations, the jury asked the court, “Are fists considered a deadly weapon?” The trial court answered “No.” The jury then convicted Gentile of first-degree murder but found “not true” the allegation that he personally used a deadly weapon.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal (“COA”) reversed. The COA reasoned that the jury most likely convicted based on the NPC theory because the jury found that Gentile did not personally use a deadly weapon. In People v. Chiu, 325 P.3d 972 (Cal. 2015), the California Supreme Court held that a defendant cannot be convicted of first-degree murder predicated on the NPC doctrine. On remand, Gentile’s conviction was reduced to second-degree murder.

In Gentile’s second appeal, he argued, inter alia, that SB 1437 eliminated second-degree murder liability under the NPC doctrine and that the provisions of SB 1437 apply retroactively. The COA rejected his arguments, and the California Supreme Court granted his petition for review. The Court transferred the case back to the COA to reconsider Gentile’s conviction in light of SB 1437 and the COA’s prior determination that the jury convicted him based on the NPC theory. On reconsideration, the COA again affirmed, construing Gentile’s argument to contend that SB 1437 “eliminate[d] all murder liability for aiders and abettors.” The COA concluded that § 189 refuted such a claim. The California Supreme Court again granted review.

The Court observed SB 1437 “amend[ed] the felony murder rule and the ... [NPC] doctrine, as it relates to murder to ensure that murder liability is not imposed on a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.” Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, § I, subd. (f). The COA misconstrued Gentile’s argument, the Court noted. While SB 1437 amended § 189, that section deals with felony murder and has no bearing on Gentile’s appeal.

But SB 1437 also added § 188(a)(3) that reads: “Except [for felony murder liability] as stated in [§ 189(e)], in order to be convicted of murder, a principal in a crime shall act with malice aforethought. Malice shall not be imputed to a person based solely on his or her participation in a crime.”

Under the NPC doctrine, an accomplice is guilty of the offense he or she directly aided and abetted (the target offense) and is also guilty of any other offense committed by the direct perpetrator that was the “natural and probable consequence” of committing the target offense. Chiu. Under the NPC doctrine, the accomplice doesn’t have to share the direct perpetrator’s intent or culpability. Id. For example, if the accomplice intends only to assault a victim but the perpetrator kills the victim, the accomplice may still be liable for murder under the NPC doctrine. Id. Ordinarily, a murder conviction requires a showing that the perpetrator acted with malice aforethought. § 187. But the NPC doctrine permits a conviction for murder regardless of whether the accomplice possessed malice aforethought and regardless of whether he or she had intent to kill. Chiu.

SB 1437’s amendments eliminate the NPC doctrine in the context of murder – whether it be first- or second-degree – by requiring each principal to have malice aforethought and prohibiting imputation of malice to accomplices who merely participated in the crime, the Court explained.

SB 1437 did not become effective until January 1, 2019, which was after Gentile’s conviction but while his appeal was pending. Ordinarily, newly enacted legislation lessening criminal punishment applies to all cases not yet final on appeal. In re Estrada, 408 P.2d 948 (Cal. 1965). But when ameliorative legislation sets out a specific mechanism as the exclusive avenue for retroactive relief, that relief cannot be applied retroactively to nonfinal judgments on direct appeal. People v. Conley, 373 P.3d 435 (Cal. 2016). This is generally because there are procedures involved for which the appellate courts do not provide the appropriate forum. People v. DeHoyos, 412 P.3d 368 (Cal. 2018).

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Related legal case

People v. Gentile



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