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Murder was the Case that They Gave Me.
–Snoop Doggy Dogg

Murder: To be guilty of murder in California you must be found guilty of the unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought. 187 P.C.

Felony Murder: To be guilty of felony murder in California you must be found guilty of committing or attempting to commit a felony listed in statute 189 P.C. including: arson, robbery, burglary, car-jacking, train-wrecking, kidnapping, mayhem and certain California sex crimes, or inherently dangerous felonies. Whether intentional, accidental or negligent. Second Degree Felony Murder occurs when found guilty of committing or attempting to commit a felony not specifically listed under 189 P.C. but one which is considered an inherently dangerous felony in which the underlying felony and death occurs in clearly separate acts.

On a sunny October day, in 2017, Justin Alongino Holmes and two others were walking down a street in the Manchester Square neighborhood of Los Angeles, suddenly, two armed teenage boys confronted the group and asked where they were from, when they stated they weren’t gang affiliated one of the gunmen then opened fire, striking Holmes, while the two others managed to flee. The gunmen then hopped into a Black sedan and sped away down an alleyway adjacent to Western Avenue.

On a not so different California day, 16-year-old Anthony C. (not his real name) went down to the wash to tag and hang out. Anthony and his friend, James (not his real name either) were members of a tagging crew. Once at the wash while getting their equipment, paints and such, James showed Anthony a gun. When asked why, James said he had it for “protection.” While the two were tagging, other kids showed up and asked if the two wanted to buy pot. They said no and while the group with the pot moved away, they remained in sight. 

James asked Anthony if he wanted to rob them.  Anthony agreed and followed James.  James pointed the gun at the guy with the pot but instead of giving up the drugs he stated, “If you don’t kill me I’ll kill you” James opened fire killing the guy. 

These two tragic cases have much in common. Aside from the underlying felonies, the first case involved death during commission of a crime for the benefit of a gang, while the second involved death during the commission of a robbery. In both cases, the victims’ deaths were senseless, unwarranted and unexpected. The loss, not only the tragic waste of victims’ lives, but the very young lives of those accused of committing these terrible acts. What leaves us questioning the state of our institutions are the very different but not unpredictable outcomes, that are playing out right before our eyes.

In the first case, the murder of the Black victim, 21-year-old Justin Alongino Holmes, 18-year-old Cameron Terrell was accused of driving the getaway car during the commission of the crime.  Terrell, son of a wealthy, White, Palos Verdes businessman was released on a high, five-million-dollar bond after his arrest in connection with the crime in 2017. While his co-defendants, who were juveniles, remained in custody until their cases could be approved for them to be tried as adults—at which point, bail was set.  

All three were charged with one count of murder and two counts of premeditated attempted murder, with gang enhancements which alleged the murder was to benefit a gang, to which the prosecution accused the three defendants of belonging.

While defendants who are deemed too violent or dangerous may be kept in pretrial custody, California’s’ money bail and pretrial detention system is broken. It disadvantages the poor and costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year. According to “Not in It For Justice How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People,” a report by Human Rights Watch, many of these defendants may never be convicted of a crime:

From 2011-2015, police in California made almost 1.5 million felony arrests. Of those, nearly one in three, close to half-a-million people, like Daniel Soto, were arrested and jailed, but never found to be guilty of any crime. Some spent hours or days behind bars. Some spent weeks; others, months and even years. The cost to taxpayers of this pretrial punishment is staggering: each day a person is held in custody costs an average of $114.

Terrell was well known in the area, was thought to be associated with the gang, and according to the prosecution, spoke to others about his loyalty to the gang. Even sporting a “W” tattoo which the prosecution stated was a sign of his gang affiliation, while the defense argued it was a sign of admiration for an NBA star. 

Despite this, on July 23, 2018, Cameron Terrell, the first of the three to be tried for Holmes’ murder and the only legal adult at the time the crime committed, was acquitted of first degree murder and attempted murder charges. According to an NBC Los Angeles article, his attorney stated:

The evidence showed that Cameron Terrell did not possess any weapons, he did not shoot anybody, he was not part of any conspiracy, or any plan or plot… At best the evidence suggests that Cameron was a witness, the defense attorney said, adding that his client made a good story because of “his background, his family, where he resides, his school.”

Had Cameron Terrell been charged with felony murder, none of the above would have mattered, he could have found himself facing life without possibility of parole. The standard of proof for felony murder is completely different, Terrell and his family won a significant victory even before the case went to trial; when he was charged with murder and not felony murder. 

In general, a person can be charged with felony murder even if he/she is not directly responsible for killing the victim. If you are found to have aided or abetted someone in commission of an underlying qualifying felony, or the underlying felony is determined to be inherently dangerous, no matter your role in the commission of the crime, making all involved subject to a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch:

Eighty-five percent of youth sentenced to life without parole are people of color, with 75 percent of all cases in California being African American or Hispanic youth. African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that is 18.3 times the rate for Whites. Hispanic youth in California are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that is five times the rate of White youth in the state.

California has the worst record in the country for racially disproportionate sentencing. In California, African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at rates that suggest unequal treatment before sentencing courts. This unequal treatment by sentencing courts cannot be explained only by White and African American youths’ differential involvement in crime.

Significantly, many of these crimes are committed by youth under an adult’s influence. Based on survey responses and other case information, we estimate that in nearly 70 percent of California cases, when juveniles committed their crime with co-defendants, at least one of these co-defendants was an adult. acting under the influence and, in some cases, the direction of an adult.


”When I Die They’ll Send Me Home,”  Youth Sentenced to Life Without the  Possibility of Parole–Report: Human Rights Watch

 

For the record, no one should be charged with felony murder, many legal experts feel that this form of punishment is tantamount to cruel and unusual treatment. Punishment which disproportionately affects women, young people and minorities. Teenagers especially should not be charged with this crime given what neuroscience is telling us about their developing brains and their inability to control impulsiveness. However, the selectiveness of who gets charged with this ghastly crime and who does not, leaves us navigating the spaces Baldwin warned us about.

A Living Death

The second case, the case of Anthony C. comes from a survey conducted by Human Rights Watch of California prisoners sentenced as youths to life without possibility of parole. From these surveys they produced a report entitled When I Die They’ll Send Me Home.” Youth Sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. 

In the surveys, the names of the prisoners have been changed to protect their identities and the facts of their cases are self-reported. While the crimes they detail are terrible, what is also clear is that the stories of these prisoners, who were convicted of crimes before they were adults, are heart-wrenching. What makes them especially so is that many of them did not kill anyone and yet find themselves sentenced to a living death. According to the report by Human Rights Watch:

In 45 percent of cases surveyed, youth who had been sentenced to life without parole had not actually committed the murder. Forty-five percent of youth reported that they were held legally responsible for a murder committed by someone else. He or she may have participated in a felony, such as robbery, but had no idea a murder would happen.

It’s Time for Change

What is Justice if she is but a caricature of herself. If her blindness is not to power and money but to those who have most need of her discernment and mercy, then we can hold no reverence for her partial being. An excised Justice, one that does not seek to discover itself in each case laid before it, to the best of our limited ability to render and dispense her as evenly as is humanly possible, is no Justice at all. 

For institutions to preserve themselves, they must not only appear to be what they purport to be, but, must center their reputations and their actual deeds. They must strive to correct imperfections and provide what is asked of them without discrimination. If not, they eventually fail, not just for the weak and the vulnerable but for everyone.

Thankfully, there are several bills in the California Senate which seek to remedy some of the problems outlined in this article. SB 10, the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, introduced by Senator Bob Hertzberg would seek to bring California in alignment with a recent California Appeals Court Decision in Re: Humphrey which found California’s system of money bail unconstitutional. 

SB 10 would require that a court determine, on a case by case basis, if a defendant is safe to release until trial, and which precautions should be made, if any, to assure the defendant shows up for trial.

Finally, SB 1437, the Accomplice Liability for Felony Murder bill introduced by Nancy Skinner, would stop malice from automatically being assumed because of participation in a felony. It would treat those who participated in a felony but did not kill anyone and did not know any would be killed, differently than those who knowingly participated in a felony and participated in killing the victim.

These bills could begin the work of mending the “state of our institutions” in this great state and start us down a path at whose end may be the faint glimmer of something whose absence lived in almost every line Baldwin wrote about his country, something promised, familiar, however not yet made manifest—a liberty and Justice for all.

 

A special “thank you” to P.K. Wil for her contributions to this story.

“When I Die They’ll Send Me Home” Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/01/13/when-i-die-theyll-send-me-home/youth-sentenced-life-without-parole-california. Accessed 31 July. 2018.

Cannick, Jasmyne. “After young Black man is gunned down in South L.A., Black teens jailed while White teen out on bail.” The Los Angeles Sentinel. 23, Nov 2018. https://lasentinel.net/after-young-Black-man-is-gunned-down-in-south-l-a-Black-teens-jailed-while-White-teen-out-on-bail.html. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018

Santa Cruz, Nicole. “Jury acquits Palos Verdes Estates man of murder in suspected gang killing in South L.A.” The Los Angeles Times, 23 Jul. 2018. http://www.latimes.com/local/crime/la-me-terrell-murder-verdict-20180715-story.html. 

Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

Kenney, Tanasia. “White Teen Found Not Guilty After Driving Getaway Car In L.A. Gang Murder of Black Student.” The Atlanta Black Star, 27, Jul. 2018. http://atlantaBlackstar.com/2018/07/27/White-teen-found-not-guilty-after-driving-getaway-car-in-l-a-gang-murder-of-Black-student/. Accessed 31, Jul. 2018.

Marcellino, Elizabeth. “Former PV HIgh Student Acquitted Of Murder Charge.” NBC Los Angeles, 23, Jul. 2018. https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Former-PV-High-School-Student-Acquitted-of-Murder-Charge-488943751.html. Accessed 31, Jul. 2018. 

“Not in it for Justice ”How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People.” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/04/11/not-it-justice/how-californias-pretrial-detention-and-bail-system-unfairly. Accessed 1, Aug. 2018