Man Convicted of Murder for Scaring Someone Denied Resentencing Under 1437

By Marshall Hammons

Judge Cynthia Lee denied Clifford Hayter a resentencing under SB 1437. The hearing, known as a prima facie hearing, is a hearing to determine if there is enough question of fact to order an evidentiary hearing. The law that was designed to re-align prison terms with culpability in a crime was not extended to Mr. Hayter.

Mr. Hayter had entered someone else’s home, ate some food, and got ready to stay the night. Mr. Hayter then unexpectedly saw someone else in the home and picked up a nearby object—a fire extinguisher. He then sprayed the fire extinguisher near this other person, but that person, according to the medical experts at trial, never inhaled any of the chemicals. Instead, that person had a heart attack and later passed away. A tragedy for certain, but not surprising to the doctors that testified at trial. The deceased had a severe heart condition further exacerbated by obesity. In essence, stress—namely shock at having a fire extinguisher be used in this unexpected manner—caused her strained heart to finally give out. Mr. Hayter had no way of knowing this person had this condition or that stress might cause her any serious harm, let alone a fatal heart attack.

Mr. Hayter’s lawyer, Maya Pearlman of Keker Van Nest and Peters, started her argument by explaining that while Mr. Hayter was convicted of first degree felony murder, he was not the actual killer. Ms. Pearlman argued that the term “actual killer” as used in the law has more meaning than it might first appear; other cases in similar contexts have explained that an actual killer needs some reckless indifference to human life. And when this case was decided, as Ms. Pearlman pointed out, there was not a showing that Mr. Hayter had shown this reckless indifference. Ms. Pearlman argued this interpretation of actual killer applied to this case.

The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Diana Knowles, argued that Mr. Hayter did not fall within the law that allows for resentencing. The prosecutor argued that Mr. Hayter was the actual killer; the expert called at trial, Dr. Stevens, had testified that it was the stress caused by Mr. Hayter that caused the person in the home to suffer a heart attack. Therefore, Mr. Hayter was the “actual killer” and was not allowed a resentencing hearing.

Judge Lee unfortunately disagreed with Ms. Pearlman on this issue. Judge Lee stated that she had reviewed all the evidence—transcripts, briefs by the attorneys, and the record on appeal—and stated Mr. Hayter did not fall within the resentencing law because the simple reading of “actual killer” denies Mr. Hayter a resentencing hearing. But Judge Lee was not done; she indicated that there might be another court, perhaps and appellate court, that would rule differently.

Ms. Pearlman argued the new law was passed with someone like Mr. Hayter in mind. He did not have any intent to kill. In fact, the contrary; this was a freak accident, and yet Mr. Hayter, as it stands today, is serving a life sentence with no possibility for parole. He is punished at the same level as cold-blooded killers and forcible rapists who torture their victims. It was this misalignment between intent and punishment that spurred Sacramento to change the law for felony murder. In fact, the legislature called this misalignment cruel and unusual punishment.

The denial by Judge Lee does not mean the end for Mr. Hayter, however. The definition of “actual killer” is a matter of first impression, meaning that no judge has ruled on this issue before. Therefore, bringing the case before a higher court that has the authority to interpret “actual killer” will be needed. Ms. Pearlman plans on appealing the ruling and fighting hard to get another prima facie hearing.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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