By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Raoul M. Thorbourne this past week really, really did not want to release Fitima Goodman, who had been in jail about 10 years on a life murder conviction.
In fact, Goodman was not new to Thorbourne’s courtroom. It was Thorbourne who sentenced Goodman – the getaway driver in a Sacramento robbery turned murder in June of 2010 – at her original trial in 2014.
“I don’t think this is fair, and I don’t want to do it (but) I’m constrained to do it by case law and statute,” said Thorbourne, who eventually acknowledged he had to do it because “We are a nation of laws.”
He then released Goodman on parole for three years after – begrudgingly – re-sentencing her to only robbery and time-served as a result of SB 1437, which limits who can be charged with murder.
In effect, the “felony murder rule” was rewritten by the legislature (SB 1437) to protect a person who “is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
It’s estimated that more than 300 cases like Goodman’s are sitting on the back burner in Sacramento County – thousands statewide – that could lead to the resentencing of people convicted of murder when they were only peripherally involved in a murder. For instance, getaway drive in a robbery not part of planning for the murder, as in Goodman’s situation.
In Goodman’s case, as the court of appeal noted in 2018, she “was not standing right next to the men when they beat down the victim” and shot Fernando Vichez dead as he was leaving a Sacramento casino after winning big.
But, the courts have said, “every maneuver she made in hunting the victim down and parking the truck facilitated the murder. She made no attempt to prevent the ambush or the subsequent lethal shooting and she failed to assist the victim at any point. Instead, she left the victim in the street.”
The trial court – Thorbourne’s court – sentenced Goodman in 2014 to life without the possibility of parole, plus an additional term for the firearm enhancements, and commented that “After the shooting, instead of attempting to help the victim or attempting to summon help, Goodman stayed in the truck (and) drove to the intersection where the victim was lying on the ground, stopped, and instead of rendering aid or summoning someone to do so, made a turn and drove slowly away.”
Assistant Public Defenders John Stoller and Leonard Tauman argued in their pleadings that Goodman, in February of 2019, “petitioned this court to vacate her murder conviction and resentence her in accordance with Penal Code section 1170.95 (created after SB 1437’s passage into law).”
“This court is obligated in this case to rule” in conformance with recent cases and re-sentence Goodman, the public defenders wrote.
The Sacramento District Attorney challenged the constitutionality of S.B. 1437, contending the new laws stemming from it and other justice reform legislation “severely hobbled, or eliminated, the Legislature’s ability to enact laws regarding murder; and that section 1170.95 upends rules of finality.”
The judge said the DA – who wants another chance to put Goodman on trial – was “creative,” but cautioned that they shouldn’t get a “second bite of the apple.”
Stoller and Tauman argued that recent court cases show that the legislature didn’t act “willy-nilly” as the DA’s office suggests, and that the DA should not get a second shot at Goodman.
“The District Attorney took eight months to respond to petitioner’s ‘bare bones’ petition and should have presented his argument and whatever facts he believes were relevant and admissible. Further delay is unconscionable,” they wrote.
“Whatever latent complexities the prosecutor discerns, the simple and sufficient response is that petitioner filed a sworn declaration, as required, and presented relevant admissible evidence from the record of conviction to prove her eligibility for relief. The prosecutor chose not to. The District Attorney has no cause for complaint. S.B. 1437 is constitutional and survives the cluster of the District Attorney’s objections,” they added.
Public defender Stoller informed the court that Goodman “has expressed regret, and has worked with the prison chaplain and hopes to stay involved with the church.”
Thorbourne, though, still apparently smarting over being required to release Goodman, had stern parting words for Goodman:
“You are a very lucky person. I sincerely hope you learn something. You don’t want to be around the court system,” he said to Goodman, who could have been set free by the judge a week before. But Thorbourne wanted to give the victim’s family a chance to attend.
So, Goodman spent another week behind bars – the family never appeared in court.