As prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state argue the constitutionality of a new law that could release inmates convicted of murders they physically didn’t commit, the first San Luis Obispo County judge to weigh in handed a win Wednesday to the defense.
As a result, 50-year-old Gerardo Estrada — sentenced to 25 years to life for a 1986 burglary and assault that resulted in the death of 84-year-old Ronald Gow — may be one step closer to release.
But because opponents of the new law argue it violates the state constitution, it’s not clear what may happen with inmates granted re-sentencing or release as the matter is appealed and likely to end up before the state Supreme Court.
More than a dozen men and women convicted of murder in San Luis Obispo County have petitioned San Luis Obispo Superior Court for re-sentencing or release since the passage of last year’s Senate Bill 1437, which limits prosecutors’ ability to use the so-called “felony murder rule” to charge accomplices to a homicide in cases filed after Jan. 1, 2019.
Before the law, someone could be charged with first- or second-degree murder if a person died during the commission of a felony they committed, such as a burglary or a robbery, even if the defendant was not present for the killing.
Now, a person can be convicted of murder only if he or she “was the actual killer” or “aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested or assisted the actual killer” or “was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
In SLO County, the District Attorney’s Office received petitions from 14 people — two of whom have since been paroled from prison independently of the law — for retroactive re-sentencing for their convicted crimes.
Two inmates’ petitions were quickly denied by judges who found that they were the actual killers.
In hearings scattered across different judges’ courtrooms over the past few months, San Luis Obispo County prosecutors and defense attorneys have been preparing to argue in court whether the local petitioners fit certain criteria and could no longer be convicted of murder under current law.
Supported by the California District Attorney’s Association, District Attorneys Offices across the state have argued that the new law is unconstitutional for several reasons, namely because it allegedly flies in the face of past voter initiatives that have defined the law and punishments for murder.
But proponents of the law, namely defense attorneys and the California Public Defenders Association, argue that the new law does not undo any of the provisions applied to murder law gained from the initiative process.
Though some judges in other counties such as Orange County have ruled that the new law is indeed unconstitutional, other judges have found it is not. Some county prosecutor offices, such as in San Francisco County, have chosen not to fight their inmates’ petitions.
Some inmates have already been freed.
A senseless crime
A probation officer’s report for Estrada from June 1987 attached in court records shows that Estrada maintained that he didn’t physically murder the elderly Gow, and that “the only thing he did wrong was being there.”
On Dec. 4, 1986, Paso Robles police and fire responded to a home on fire in the 200 block of Creston Road. One officer was assisted in pulling the homeowner, Gow, to safety from inside the home by a passing motorist, according to Tribune articles from the time.
The report states that Gow was bleeding from the head and had a long cut across his throat. Gow was able to tell officers that he was attacked in by a couple of males when he caught them burglarizing his home. After beating Gow, one of the teens stabbed or slashed Gow’s throat with a 9-inch knife and both left him for dead.
Gow succumbed to his injuries about 18 days after the attack.
The investigation led authorities to Estrada and 16-year-old Emilio Carranza, both of San Miguel, who were both charged with Gow’s murder.
Estrada agreed to talk to investigators, saying that he and Carranza went to Gow’s home armed with knives and stole several items, returning a couple of times for more items. On the last trip, Estrada told officers that Carranza had both knives when Gow confronted them in the kitchen.
According to the report, Estrada said Carranza began beating Gow and setting fires inside the home. Estrada said he left the house and called Carranza to follow him, which he eventually did.
“The defendant said he is very ashamed about what he has done and said it does not seem possible he will receive 25 years to life as a result of his involvement,” the probation report reads. “He said he did not kill the old man and feels bad because not everyone believes him. He said the only thing he did wrong was being there.”
Estrada pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in May 1987. Carranza, who was tried as an adult, was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Carranza, now 48, remains incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison.
Estrada, now 50, is currently being housed at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for his re-sentencing petition proceedings.
‘A complicated issue’
On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen heard oral arguments from Deputy District Attorneys Christopher Peuvrelle and Danielle Wheeler, as well as Estrada’s defense counsel, Earl Conaway, over the DA’s argument that Estrada’s petition should be denied on the grounds that SB 1437 is unconstitutional.
As they have for all remaining murder petition cases, the DA’s Office argued the new law should be invalid for several reasons. First, the prosecutors argued that the law “completely eviscerates” the will of the voters from past ballot initiatives such as 1978’s Proposition 7, which set penalties for murder; as well as 1990’s Prop 115, which added crimes applicable to a murder charge.
“The (initiatives) and SB 1437 could not be more diametrically opposed,” Peuvrelle told van Rooyen.
He argued that the petition process also violates Marsy’s Law, which created a victims’ bill of rights, and which Peuvrelle argued was created “to prevent unnecessary suffering, quite frankly at the hands of the Legislature, which we have here.”
Lastly, the prosecutors argued the new law violates the state’s separation of powers, with the Legislature encroaching upon the judiciary.
“It’s virtually impossible for the People to come back 30 years later and prove something that didn’t have to be proven at the time,” Peuvrelle said.
Conaway, however, argued that the courts have stated that there is a presumption of constitutionality for each new law. Furthermore, he said, SB 1437 does not infringe upon the court’s ability to hold murderers or accomplices accountable as defined by past initiatives.
“In other words, the voters get what they enacted, nothing more, nothing less,” Conaway said, arguing the only change is that a defendant has to be deemed a major participant to be charged with murder. “Voters were never asked to define what a participant is.”
As to Marsy’s Law, Conaway argued that common habeas corpus petitions would be unlawful under Peuvrelle’s argument.
Ultimately, van Rooyen sided with the defense.
“(SB1437) does not prohibit anything authorized by those (initiatives),” he said. “Voters did not freeze the law of murder in 1978.”
Van Rooyen encouraged the DA’s Office to file an appeal as soon as possible as he is unclear about his ability to stay the petitions process — meaning people will likely be released before the matter is completely litigated.
“It’s a complicated issue,” the judge said.
There will be another hearing in Estrada’s case May 13. Several other cases are scheduled over the next few weeks, when at least six local judges are expected to make their own individual rulings.