SB 1437 Hearings in San Francisco

Lifer to be re-sentenced after 33 years in prison; Re-sentencing denied to defendant in 1991 hostage taking shoot-out


By Stephen Yair Liebb

SAN FRANCISCO – On Feb. 7, 2020, Thomas Keel, a man convicted in 1987 for Second Degree Murder, was found eligible for resentencing under SB 1437.

Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy will re-sentence Mr. Keel on February 21, 2020 to a residential robbery or burglary. At that time, Mr. Keel’s conviction for a second-degree murder, to which he pled guilty in a joint-deal with his co-defendant Ronnie Wingfield, will be vacated. The charges are being argued for by San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Allison Macbeth.

Resentencing under Penal Code section 1170.95

Penal Code section 1170.95, subdivision (a) provides that , a person convicted of first degree or second degree murder under a theory of  “felony murder or under the natural and probable consequences theory may file a petition with the court that sentenced the petitioner to have petitioner’s murder conviction vacated and to be re-sentenced on any remaining counts.”

Keel’s Case

Mr. Keel and his co-defendant Mr. Wingfield were arrested on July 20, 1985, in Redding, California for investigation of grand theft of an automobile and possession of stolen property. During that investigation they each admitted to other crimes they committed during June and July of 1985, including the robbery of Mr. Butts. In a taped statement given to Redding Police, Mr. Wingfield admitted that he and Mr. Keel met Mr. Butts, who was inebriated and staggering down the sidewalk, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco.

San Francisco Police Department detectives interviewed Mr. Keel and Mr. Wingfield in Redding and they each provided details about the death of Mr. Butts. Mr. Keel stated to the SFPD that Mr. Butts needed help finding his car and although Mr. Keel thought he was too drunk to drive, Mr. Butts insisted on doing so. Mr. Keel said that Mr. Butts consumed vodka and took amyl nitrate (also known as “poppers”) with Mr. Wingfield who was also drinking beer that had been provided to them by Mr. Butts.

That night, Mr. Butts offered the men money in exchange for sex. Mr. Butts performed oral sex on both men before passing out on a sofa bed he shared with the defendants. In the morning, when Mr. Wingfield asked about payment, Mr. Butts became belligerent and began yelling out. Mr. Keel held Mr. Butts from behind to restrict his movement.  Mr. Wingfield put his hand over Mr. Butts’ mouth to quiet him, then Mr. Butts quickly turned blue and fell to the ground.

​Ronnie Wingfield, admitted to causing the death of the victim at his 2015 parole hearing, not Mr. Keel. Mr. Wingfield was found suitable for parole. Mr. Wingfield testified at that Parole Hearing:

“I believe that he had a heart attack as a result of my actions. I understand that I caused it. It was my fault at that point. I turned to Tom and said, Tom, just grab him, and I’ll just take it out of his wallet, and we’ll just run. Tommy grabbed him, and I was going to get his wallet, and I happened to look at his face and he was blue.”

After realizing Mr. Butts was deceased on the floor in front of them, the defendants panicked, tried to resuscitate Mr. Butts, and robbed Mr. Butt’s home before fleeing to Southern California.  Mr.
Wingfield stated that he began crying when he realized Mr. Butts was dead. Mr. Keel recalled the event as being “horrible” in both his initial interviews with police and at the parole board hearing.

Parole Board Hearings

Mr. Keel had appeared before the California Board of Parole Hearings seven times. Each time he was denied parole. In order to demonstrate to the Board his insight into his offense, Mr. Keel took personal accountability for the role he played in the robbery that led to the death of Mr. Butts. Mr. Keel told the Board in 2028:  “And, uh, it knocked him out, but it actually went through the process of killing him and I didn’t realize that at the time.”  He goes on to say that “he came back to at one time and Ronnie and I were trying to resuscitate the guy.”

Mr. Keel, who was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard in 1972 where he trained in emergency life-saving measures, administered CPR to Mr. Butts.  According to his co-defendant, Mr. Wingfield, Petitioner Keel “gave [Mr. Butts] the breath of life.”  Additionally, the petitioner stated the same at his own parole board hearing, “Ronnie and I were trying to resuscitate the guy.”  Mr. Keel did not act with reckless indifference to life because he did try to provide aid to the victim.

Recognizing there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Keel  was the actual killer or a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life, the Office of the District Attorney stipulated that Mr. Keel was eligible for resentencing.

Mr. Keel will likely be re-sentenced for residential robbery or burglary. His exposure will be to a term of  three, four or six years. He has served well in excess of the punishment for those crimes and will be released from the custody of the California Department of Corrections after being re-sentenced  on February 21.

Mr. Keel will then be transported to Oregon where he is to serve about 30 years for unrelated crimes.

Mr. Keel is represented by San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson and Gavin Thole of Keker Van Nest and Peter.

Separate Petition for Resentencing Denied Without Appointment of Counsel

Loi Kha Nguyen was convicted by a jury in San Francisco County Superior Court of multiple counts of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping for ransom, and assault with a firearm. In 1995, the petitioner was sentenced to 41 consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole, eight consecutive terms of life with the possibility of parole, and a determinate sentence of 179 years.

The California Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court of California denied the petition for direct review. The case was tried in San Francisco after a change of venue was granted from Sacramento.

The Sacramento District Attorney’s Office had requested that the petition be heard in Sacramento. However, Judge Conroy determined that venue was appropriate in San Francisco where the trial was held, as is the rule with habeas petitions.

Judge Conroy found that because the record showed that Nguyen was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life, he was ineligible for re-sentencing and the petition was denied without prejudice and  without appointment of counsel. Mr. Nguyen may file another petition with evidence that he qualifies for resentencing.

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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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