Prisoners who were convicted of murder but didn’t kill anyone have been granted the right to legal representation when they challenge their conviction.
The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in July that inmates whose claims meet the basic standards of the law are entitled to an attorney to prepare and argue their case in Superior Courts. This “furthers the purpose of the law,” Justice Joshua Groban said in the 7-0 ruling.
Senate Bill 1437 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, took effect in 2019. It says that a murder conviction is only allowed if the defendant intended the killing and directly aided in it, the San Francisco Chronicle reported July 26.
This ruling applied retroactively, which allowed prisoners to challenge their murder conviction. But until the July ruling, most of California’s appellate courts have refused to require that an attorney be appointed before a local judge holds the initial hearing.
Now, incarcerated people who want to challenge their life sentences will be represented at an early stage in the case by a court-appointed attorney. The attorney can help the prisoners, who often do not understand the process of law, to navigate the appeal process.
Sen. Skinner had joined prisoners’ rights advocates in urging the court to require the early appointment of legal counsel.
“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 mental disorder,” said Skinner.
“The Legislature designed (SB1437) 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. Too many courts made it unreasonably hard for them to get in the courthouse door,” said attorney Robert Bacon.
Bacon represents Vince E. Lewis, a Los Angeles man challenging his murder conviction. Lewis, a gang member, was sitting in the car when another gang member fatally shot Darsy Noriega, allegedly a member of the same gang.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office had argued, along with county prosecutors, to uphold Lewis’s conviction. After the July ruling, the AG’s office declined to comment.