Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 10, 2015


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Justices Limit Felony-Murder Special Circumstance, Order That Getaway Driver Be Resentenced


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The getaway driver in an armed robbery, a participant in which shot a security guard while fleeing, should not have been sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.

Accomplices who lack intent to kill are subject to the felony-murder special circumstance, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the court, “only when their involvement is substantial and they demonstrate a reckless indifference to the grave risk of death created by their actions.” The standard, she explained, is the same one that the U.S. Supreme Court has set forth for determining whether an accomplice convicted under the felony-murder rule is subject to the death penalty.

The high court ordered resentencing for Lovie Troy Matthews. According to testimony, Matthews was the getaway driver following a 2008 robbery at the La Brea Collective, a marijuana dispensary, in which his co-defendant, Leon Banks, shot and killed Noe Gonzalez as Banks and two other men ran from the dispensary after shots were fired inside.

A witness said the other two men jumped into the car driven by Matthews a block from the dispensary. Banks was captured on foot.

Banks’s and Matthews’s cellphones were recovered by police, and numerous calls between them on the afternoon of the robbery were discovered. GPS tracking helped establish that he was the getaway driver, and he was found guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances of robbery and burglary and sentenced to life without parole by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gail Ruderman Feuer.

The Court of Appeal for this district affirmed, reasoning that Matthews was a “major participant” in the underlying felonies, as required by Penal Code §190.2 for the special circumstance, because he acted with knowledge that death is always possible in a case of armed robbery.

Werdegar, however, said there must be “case-specific facts” showing that the defendant acted with reckless indifference to human life.

She cited two death penalty cases, Tison v. Arizona (1987) 481 U.S. 137, and Enmund v. Florida (1982) 458 U.S. 782, in which the high court considered whether the defendants could not be executed based on their participation in felonies where they neither killed nor intended to kill the victims and lacked specific knowledge of the likelihood that anyone would be killed.

In Enmund, the court found that the defendant was a minor participant in the underlying crime, was not at the scene of the homicide, and had no culpable mental state. In Tison, however, the justices found that two brothers who helped break their father and a cellmate out of prison were sufficiently culpable to receive the death sentence for the killings of four people by their father and his cellmate after the victims were carjacked, a crime in which the brothers participated after the car in which they spirited the men from the prison broke down.

The high court said that although the brothers neither killed anyone nor intended that anyone be killed, their “major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, is sufficient to satisfy the Enmund culpability requirement.”

Matthews’s case, Werdegar wrote, was different from Tison and indistinguishable from Enmund.

In Enmund, the Supreme Court rejected exactly this argument, that the risk of death inherent in an armed robbery justifies the death penalty simply for knowingly participating in such a crime,” the justice explained, while in Tison it “made clear felony murderers like Enmund, who simply had awareness their confederates were armed and armed robberies carried a risk of death, lack the requisite reckless indifference to human life.” 

The case, People v. Banks, 15 S.O.S. 3529, was argued in the high court by Danalynn Pritz, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Paul M. Roadarmel Jr. for the prosecution.


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