By Alexandra Cline
SAN FRANCISCO – With both the defendant’s family members and the victim’s dad present in the courtroom, sentencing was determined for Jonathan Johnston on Feb. 6, 2020, in the SF Hall of Justice.
Defendant Johnathan Johnston, represented by Conflict Attorneys Michael Gaines and Sarah Potter, has been in custody since 2006 and awaiting final sentencing. Assistant District Attorney Ryan King stated that the prosecution would withdraw their opposition to a petition of relief and allow discarding of the original conviction and sentence.
Originally given a life sentence, Judge Brendan Conroy stated that the jury agreed that Johnston did not kill anyone and that he did not act with reckless indifference to human life. His accomplice, Royale LeBlanc, stabbed Carlos Urzua 18 times and stole his cell phone, mistaking him for a rival gang member.
Both defendants were part of the Norteño gang and allegedly assumed the victim was part of a gang called Sureños. Their murder charges initially came with a gang enhancement and robbery.
Johnston was convicted with aiding and abetting a second-degree murder due to his presence when the murder occurred, but he was acquitted of robbery. Royale LeBlanc was convicted of first-degree murder and they were both given life sentences.
A juvenile witness previously reported that Jonathan Johnston called the shots, saying, “He’s a scrap, go get him,” before driving away from the crime scene. The defense argued that this phrase did not imply an intention to kill and that he was merely the driver of a vehicle involved in the murder. There was no evidence that what he said was a command to kill.
Johnston has now pleaded to voluntary manslaughter and been sentenced to 11 years in state prison. Already having served 4,015 days in county jail, his sentence was satisfied, and he will be released on parole by Tuesday, March 10, of this year.
In the original sentencing, the court gave improper jury instructions, only communicating half of the information about natural and probable consequences in a second-degree murder. The jury was informed about implied malice and the language of “reasonably probable,” but not about the underlying crimes that determine the theory of natural and probable consequences.
Conflict Attorney Sarah Potter argued that the unjust conduct would constitute a resentencing, as the jury was basing their judgments on incomplete theories. Therefore, jury deliberation should be reconsidered. SB 1437 would negate this verdict and the jury wouldn’t be able to find him guilty of second-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
During the hearing, accompanied by a victim advocate, the victim’s dad thanked the court and stated that he wished the defendant would spend the rest of the years he has left offering service to the community, in recognition of his incarceration. With a Spanish interpreter, Judge Conroy thanked him for his comments.
Johnston responded to the victim’s statement in Spanish, asking for forgiveness for his involvement in the murder and giving his condolences for the father’s loss.
Conflict Attorney Sarah Potter informed Johnston that this felony would count as a strike on his record and that if he violated parole he could serve up to 180 days in jail. Johnston will also continue to pay restitution, which he has already started to make payments on.
Sarah Potter insisted that paperwork should be completed, ensuring the defendant’s immediate release. Assistant District Attorney Ryan King stated that the People stipulated—agreed with the new sentence. After 11 years in jail, Jonathan Johnston will receive an order of release and be able to return home to his family.
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