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“It was unfathomable, I could barely breathe when my fiancée tried to hug me,” said murder suspect Neko Wilson when he was asked how he felt when he was released from the Fresno County jail in October 2018, where he had spent nine years awaiting trial. Wilson was the first man to walk free from prison after California passed new murder laws in September 2018, according to Abbie Van Sickle, reporting for The New York Times.
Wilson could possibly have been sentenced to death over the deaths of Sandra and Gary DeBartolo, who were killed in 2009 after robbers broke into their home in Kerman, California, looking for marijuana, and then later killed the couple.
Wilson was not accused of killing the two nor was he at the couple’s home when they were murdered. Prosecutors, however, insist that Wilson helped plan the burglary.
At that time, there was enough evidence to charge Wilson with murder since, in a conspiracy, the crime with the greatest guilt also applies to the least-guilty.
Back then, a person could be convicted of murder if they participated in a felony where the murder had happened, even if they did not participate in the killing nor even knew about it. However, in September 2018, the California Legislature approved legislation that stipulated that only those who have actually killed, intended to kill, or were a major participant who acted with “reckless indifference to human life” could be convicted of murder. The only exception is when the victim is a law enforcement officer.
For two months after regaining back his freedom, Wilson’s life hung on a balance after prosecutors filed motions to send Wilson back to jail, claiming they erred when they offered Wilson a plea deal and that the new law is unconstitutional.
But on May 16, 2019, a Fresno County judge sentenced Wilson to two counts of robbery and released him from jail because he had already served the maximum penalty. The judge did not say whether the new law is unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, district attorneys across California have mounted similar challenges to the law after Orange County prosecutors convinced the court in February 2019 that the new law violates the constitution of California and is in conflict with anti-crime initiatives that were approved by voters in 1978 and 1990.
The issue has divided judges around the state, with some favoring the constitutional argument while others are against it, and is likely to end up with the California Supreme Court. It is a sign of the resistance faced by the state’s lawmakers who have passed legislation aimed at reducing the number of prisoners and the expenses related to their upkeep. After years of strict anti-crime laws, California has led to reducing the prison population while crime has remained at record laws.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, do not agree with the trend, claiming the laws compromise public safety. Among them is Michele Hanisee, the president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County. Hanisee said the fallout from the new law will come at the expense of innocent victims since murderers are being set free.
The new murder law is also the most controversial of the changes resulting in the release of people who have been imprisoned for murder. The first is Adnan Khan who was released from San Quentin prison in January 2019. He was sent to prison after he helped rob a marijuana dealer who was stabbed to death by his accomplice. While Wilson was released earlier than Khan, he had yet to be convicted.
The new murder law overrules the changes that were incorporated to the murder code at a time when the crime rate was high, based on arguments filed in court against Wilson’s case and other similar cases. In 1978, voters passed a law that increased penalties for murder and in 1990 they approved another law that expanded the number of crimes that can be considered first-degree murder. Although the felony murder rule was not touched upon by the two referendums, prosecutors claim that it will take a new referendum or two-thirds of the California Legislature to revise the murder code.
Nancy Skinner, the state legislator who proposed the new law, said that she made sure the legislation would not cause any constitutional problems. She added that Wilson’s case only underscored why the new legislation was needed. She claimed that the felony murder rule was biased against women, blacks, and Latinos. Even the California Supreme Court had called it barbaric, she said.
A lot of the credit for getting the new law changed goes to Neko’s brother, Jacque, a public defender who was Neko’s lawyer in the case. Jacque took up the cudgels to get the law changed. During a phone interview, Jacque said that his brother was overwhelmed and relieved after walking out of prison.
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