In People v. Strong, the Supreme Court today gives more defendants who were convicted of felony murder years ago a chance to seek lesser sentences under 2018 legislation — Senate Bill No. 1437 — that, the court explained, “significantly narrowed the scope of the felony-murder rule” and provided for some resentencing.
The legislative narrowing went only so far, however. A convicted defendant is ineligible for resentencing if they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.” (Pen. Code, section 189(e)(3).) The jury that convicted Strong made a special circumstance finding that he was in fact a “major participant” who acted “with reckless indifference to human life,” a finding that led to his sentence of two terms of life without parole.
But the court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Leondra Kruger concludes Strong is not disqualified from relief because the jury’s finding was made before two of the court’s decisions, “which for the first time provided substantial guidance on the meaning of the two relevant statutory phrases.” He can try to make out a case for resentencing “even if the trial evidence would have been sufficient to support [the special circumstance] finding[ ] under” the law as elucidated in the two decisions. Those decisions “represent the sort of significant change that has traditionally been thought to warrant reexamination of an earlier-litigated issue,” the court finds. Defendants with special circumstance findings made after the two decisions are generally out of luck.
The court reverses an unpublished Third District Court of Appeal opinion. It also expressly disapproves two 2020 Second District, Division One, opinions. But there are tons of Strong grant-and-holds, a number of which are at odds with today’s decision.