Commentary: El Dorado County Judge’s Mistaken Claim that New Felony Murder Law Unconstitutional Has Led to Wrongful Convictions

Corrina Tran-Vaccaro at the CA Capitol participating in a demonstration calling for investigation El Dorado DA’s office on Nov. 18, 2021.(Photo by Robert J Hansen)

By Robert J. Hansen

In May 2019, Judge Mullen declared California Senate Bill 1437 unconstitutional when the Tahoe 5 requested that the murder charges against them be dropped, according to Paula Peterson of South Tahoe Now.

Dion Vaccaro, Dominic Randolph, Andrew Adams, Harvest Davidson, and Tevarez Lopez all are being charged with Wright’s murder, and are known as the Tahoe 5. All have been in jail or prison since their arrests. Tristan Batten was also charged in the case and previously plead guilty to a murder charge in exchange for testifying against the others involved, but later refused to testify in court.

“SB 1437 takes away from the punitive provisions of Proposition 7 for first and second-degree murder by amending rule and doctrine as it relates to murder to more equitably punish, limit subsequent sentencing, and reduce lengthy sentences,” Mullen said.

The bill was signed by then-California Governor Jerry Brown in September 2018 and changed the liability for accomplices to felony murder.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office said it was an unauthorized legislative amendment of two previous voter initiatives, Proposition 7 and Proposition 115, and Mullen agreed.

Mullen ruled that only voters could change a voter initiative. He said, even if SB 1437 was an amendment to the previous voter-approved Proposition 7, it didn’t meet the required two-thirds vote by both the State Senate and Assembly before the Governor signed it.

However, Mullen is mistaken based on a ruling by the Fourth Appellate District Court.

In 2019, Manuel De Jesus Prado filed a petition under SB 1437

“I could not now be convicted of 1st- or 2nd-degree murder because of changes made to Penal Code §§ 188 and 189, effective January 1, 2019,” Prado said.

In People v. Prado, the Fourth Appellate District Court’s ruling explained that a trial court’s ruling on the constitutionality of a legislative act is a pure question of law. Also, in its analysis, the Court began with the presumption that any legislative act is valid.  Such a presumption may be rebutted by showing that the act conflicts with the federal or state constitution.

The Fourth Appellate District held that 1437 did not amend Proposition 7 or Proposition 115.  Proposition 7 increased the punishment for murder, while Senate Bill 1437 amended the elements of murder to establish accomplice liability.

The people of California have the power to place propositions on the ballot through the voter initiative process, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).

“This includes initiatives to amend the Constitution or other state laws (or both), as well as referenda to overturn certain legislatively enacted laws,” the LAO website reads. In addition, with a two-thirds vote, the Legislature can put measures to amend the state Constitution or approve bond financing before voters. With a majority vote, the Legislature can also place on the ballot measures to change state laws previously added or amended by voter initiative.”

Through Judge Mullen’s misinterpretation of California law, Vaccaro and Lopez have been convicted of murder after juries were presented with false and coerced witness statements and exculpatory evidence withheld by El Dorado County prosecutors.

Defense attorneys for the defendants have failed to present exculpatory evidence that they knew of, failed to call witnesses that had knowledge that contradicts prosecutors’ narrative in defense of their clients, and failed to provide adequate counsel.

Davidson and Randolph are still fighting their cases.

Adams plead no contest to murder and robbery and was sentenced to 25 years to life. He has been in North Kern State Prison since August 2021. According to the state’s prison website, he is eligible for parole in September 2028.

About The Author

Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Robert is covering the Yolo County DA's race for the Vanguard.

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