In People v. Lewis, the Supreme Court today gives already convicted defendants a better chance of getting relief under Senate Bill 1437, 2018 legislation which narrowed murder liability under the felony murder theory and eliminated it under the natural and probable consequences doctrine.
The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Joshua Groban holds that, under the new law’s terms, those petitioning for post-conviction relief “are entitled to the appointment of counsel upon the filing of a facially sufficient petition.” They don’t have to also make a showing that they are entitled to relief before receiving assistance. The court says that the Legislature recognized the potential significant costs associated with early counsel appointments.
Once a facially sufficient petition is filed and counsel is appointed (if requested), the court can then review the record of conviction to determine if there is a prima facie showing of entitlement to relief.
The court also concludes, however, that the erroneous denial of counsel does not require automatic reversal. Instead, a petitioner must show it is reasonably probable that the denial was prejudicial. In Lewis’s case, the court kicks the harmless error analysis back to the Court of Appeal.
The court reverses the Second District, Division One, Court of Appeal. It doesn’t expressly disapprove any decisions, but it does single out several opinions that agreed with the now-reversed Division One ruling — 2020 opinions by the Second District, Division Seven, the Second District, Division Three, the First District, Division Three, the Sixth District, and the Second District, Division Five. The court also identifies some opinions in accord with its decision — two 2020 opinions by the First District, Division One, and a dissent from the 2020 Second District, Division Three opinion. The court’s opinion quotes that dissent several times.