Court of Appeal:
First District Panel, on Transfer From State’s High Court, Sticks With Its April Decision
By a MetNews Staff Writer
There’s no equal protection denial in affording a youth offender parole hearing under Penal Code §3051 to persons sentenced to life without possibility of parole who committed their offenses before the age of 18 but not those whose felonious conduct occurred when they were between the ages of 18 and 25, Div. Two of the First District Court of Appeal has held.
Sec. 3051 provides, in general, for a “youth offender parole hearing…for the purpose of reviewing the parole suitability of any prisoner who was 25 years of age or younger…at the time of the controlling offense.” However, subd. (h) specifies that the section does not apply “to cases in which an individual is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a controlling offense that was committed after the person had attained 18 years of age.”
In denying a petition for a writ of habeas corpus sought by Paul Murray—who was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole (“LWOP”) for a first-degree special-circumstance murder committed on Aug. 23, 2003, at the age of 22 and who was in 2020 denied a youth parole hearing—the court declared that “there is a rational basis for distinguishing between juvenile and youthful LWOP offenders in this context.”
However, the members of Div. Two joined the chorus of Court of Appeal justices calling for a reexamination by the Legislature of the line it has drawn.
Tuesday’s denial of Murray’s petition was the second rejection of the inmate’s contention. It denied his petition on April 19, but California Supreme Court on June 23 granted review, then bounced the case back to Div. Two with instructions to order the secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to show cause why relief should not be granted.
The panel complied; a return was filed by the secretary; oral argument was requested by neither side; Div. Two issued its second opinion, little changed from the April opinion which the Supreme Court had ordered depublished.
In both opinions, Acting Presiding Justice James Richman said:
“In deciding the eligibility of LWOP offenders for a section 3051 youth offender parole hearing, the Legislature drew the line at adulthood: those under 18 years old at the time of their offense are eligible, those 18 years old and older are not. When it comes to criminal sentencing, the United States and California Supreme Courts have found the line drawn between juveniles and nonjuveniles to be a rational one….While section 3051 is not a sentencing statute per se, it nevertheless impacts the length of sentence served. We thus believe that in this context, the line between juveniles and adults remains a rational one.”
Richman noted in the April opinion a concurring “statement” by California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin H. Liu, appended to a 2020 order in a case denying review of Court of Appeal decisions dealing with §3051, in which Liu questioned the appropriateness of the Legislature’s line of demarcation between youthful offenders covered by the provision, and not. The opinion rendered on Tuesday additionally points to a June 9 statement by Liu that follows an order denying review.
He said in that statement:
“I continue to believe section 3051’s parole eligibility scheme is in tension with equal protection of the laws.”
Liu went on to observe that “[a]s of this writing, at least 11 justices of the Court of Appeal have called for legislative reconsideration of section 3051.”
“And in the last few months several more justices have expressed similar views.
“We, too, share the concerns and recognize the tension. That said, it does not amount to an equal protection violation, and it is not our role to ‘second-guess the wisdom, fairness, or logic of the law.’…But we join the others in encouraging the Legislature to revisit where it has drawn the line with section 3051, subdivision (h), and to reconsider whether a youthful offender who was sentenced to LWOP for a crime committed at an age while cognitive brain development was still ongoing should be afforded the possibility of release like those under 18 years old at the time of their offense.”
Murray’s conviction stems from his killing of a clerk at a convenience store in Oakland after committing a robbery it at gunpoint. He pled no contest to two counts of second degree robbery and admitted a prior felony conviction; he was also found guilty of attempted murder of another employee of the store (who was severely wounded) and of possession of a firearm.
The scene, as described by police, was a “bloodbath.”
Murray was free on bail after being charged with commission of a series of robberies in Sacramento.
The case is In re Murray, 2021 A161687A.
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