Monday, September 13, 2010

California Federal Judge throws out prisoner's murder conviction

Article I Sec. 9 of the Constition reads, "The Privilege of
the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended..."
Photo courtesy of Chuck Coker
On Thursday, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that David Leon's second degree murder conviction violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, must be vacated and gave orders to a California trial court to do so.

According to court documents, on November 15, 2002, Mr. Leon, then a gang member, was involved in a series of scuffles with a rival gang when he shot a gun at a car.  An occupant suffered a chest wound and later died.  Scientific evidence was inconclusive as to whether Mr. Leon's gun fired the bullet in the occupant's chest.  On October 14, 2004, a jury found Mr. Leon guilty of second degree murder under a felony murder theory and discharging a firearm.  He was sentenced to 25 years to life for second degree murder by using a firearm and five years to life for discharging he firearm at a vehicle.

The judge explained that felony murder is any killing which occurs during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony regardless of the felon's intent.  This is subject to some limitations, such as the merger doctrine. Under the merger doctrine if the "inherently dangerous felony" is a felony that causes the injury then the underlying felony and its consequence merge and there is only the underlying felony and no felony murder.  Until recently, the California courts had several inconsistent cases about how to determine what kinds of felonies are those which "cause the injury."

While Mr. Leon's petition pended the California Supreme Court clarified its position in People v. Chun (2009).  There the court ruled that assaultive crimes merge with the consequence and cannot be the basis for a felony murder jury instruction.  Here, the trial court (albeit acting under a correct interpretation of the law in 2004) gave a jury instruction that discharging a firearm at a car could be the basis for felony murder.

Judge Patel stated that was an incorrect statement of the law thereby violating Mr. Leon's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  She vacated the murder conviction and remanded the case to the trial court to change his sentence.  Interestingly, Judge Patel appointed Dallas Sacher to represent Mr. Leon who was also the successful attorney in Chun.

The case is Leon v. Felker NO. C 07-3954 and the opinion is below the jump.

Here is the opinion:
Leon v. Felker

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