California prisoners are entitled to a lawyer when they challenge their murder convictions for killings that others committed, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court’s ruling means that hundreds of inmates who want to use a 2-year-old law to fight their convictions have the right to court-appointed attorneys to argue their cases, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
SB1437, which took effect in 2019, narrowed a California law that permitted murder convictions for anyone involved in a robbery, burglary or other serious felony where someone died — regardless of whether they actually committed the killing.
SB1437 permitted a murder conviction only for someone who intended the killing and directed and aided in it or acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”
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Hundreds of prisoners challenged their convictions and qualified for legal representation. However, most state appellate courts refused to require court-appointed lawyers before a lower court decided whether the challenge should be allowed to proceed.
More than 300 challenges that were dismissed are now before the California Supreme Court, the Chronicle said.
Monday’s ruling said that an inmate who hadn’t killed anyone and was fighting a murder conviction was entitled to an attorney to help them argue in the initial hearing that their case meets the basic requirements of the law.
The case was filed on behalf of Vince E. Lewis, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the 2012 gang shooting of a woman by another gang member while Lewis waited in a car.
“The Legislature designed this law to give it as broad application as possible, to identify people who should be serving sentences for lesser crimes that they actually committed and not for murders that someone else committed,” said his attorney, Robert Bacon. “Too many courts made it unreasonably hard for them to even get in the courthouse door.”
The author of the law, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, argued in a court filing that many inmates weren’t capable of handling the complexities of legal issues on their own.
“Many people in our prisons cannot read. Many people in our prison system have a limited education. Many people in our prisons have limited English comprehension. Many people in our prisons have intellectual disabilities or have been diagnosed with a mental disorder,” Skinner said in the filing.
The state attorney general’s office, which argued for upholding Lewis’ conviction, declined to comment on the ruling, the Chronicle said.