Jamil Wilson was barely 20 years old when he found himself entangled in a murder conspiracy that changed his life forever.
Wilson met with friends to celebrate his birthday on that fateful night in 1994. But what he didn’t know was that some of his friends had plans to kill one of their mothers, he said according to a July 29 Los Angeles Times article.
Since he was at the scene of the crime, Wilson was a liable accomplice to the murder and faced an additional underlying penalty for “special circumstances” under the law at the time.
In 1990, 57% of California voters approved that law through a ballot initiative called Proposition 115, also known as the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act. Anyone found guilty of murder along with another felony crime, triggered a “special circumstances” clause, and faced maximum punishment in the form of the death penalty or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
The 1996 trials of Wilson and his friends resulted in convictions for felony murder in the first degree and sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole due to the “special circumstances” rule, said the Times. Aiding and abetting a conspiracy was the other felony crime that triggered the sentencing rule.
“During my sentencing, the judge literally cried in the courtroom saying that he wished he could give me a lesser sentence,” Wilson said. “After hearing the case, he knew deep down in his heart that I did not deserve the life without parole sentence.”
Critics of Proposition 115 argue that the “special circumstances” provision, along with other changes in state law, results in “de-facto racism.” This provision, they say, has disproportionately impacted youth of color in particular, most of whom did not kill or intend to kill anyone, by sentencing them excessive penalties in the form of life without the possibility of parole.
One such critic, California State Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), is looking to remedy this situation.
He authored Senate Bill 300, also known as the Sentencing Reform Act, which seeks to modify part of Proposition 115, including the “special circumstances” rule. The revision would give judges more sentencing discretion in cases where accomplices did not act with intent to kill or otherwise inadvertently got themselves caught in the middle of a terrible crime.
“I don’t blame the voters. I don’t blame anyone necessarily for the outcomes that we’re getting today, but we’re getting them, nonetheless,” Cortese told The Times in reference to Proposition 115.
Supporters of SB 300 assert that youths sentenced under the so-called “special circumstances” rule are also victims, the article said.
In 2018 — a similar bill SB 1437 authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner — became law. SB 1437 limited murder charges to those who actually committed or intended to commit a killing, but it did not account for the “special circumstances” cases under Proposition 115 that involved an underlying felony at the scene of a murder.
To date, SB 300 has passed the Senate and still needs to pass the Assembly before it can advance. The Assembly tends to lean more conservative and the proposal will need at least 54 of the 80 votes to pass that chamber, says Cortese.
Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Wilson’s sentence in 2019 due to his positive programming, and he was granted parole after serving 25 years.
Now three years out of prison, Wilson married his high school sweetheart and works at a nonprofit organization in the Bay Area that helps other formerly incarcerated people.