By Fiona Davis
WOODLAND, CA – A public defender argued this week here in Yolo County Superior Court to have a murder conviction from 1979 resentenced, as he and the prosecution argued over what evidence to include in determining the convict’s eligibility.
The judge decided to take a month to decide which way to go.
According to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, in December of 1978, Douglas Ray Bentley and another individual reportedly entered a club in West Sacramento with a plan to commit robbery.
However, when the robbery did not go according to plan, Bentley reportedly shot and killed a frequent patron of the bar, 43-year-old Cecil Renfroe.
In February of the following year, Bentley pleaded guilty to first degree murder, resulting in a 25-years-to-life prison sentence. In the decades following his conviction, Bentley has been denied parole eight times.
However, in the years since the robbery and murder occurred, California law regarding felony murder charges changed. Previously, felony murder convictions could be made on the basis that anyone participating in felony activity generally, but not necessarily the murder, was then considered liable for any death occurring during the incident.
Then in 2018, the California legislature changed the felony murder law, so that those charged with murder must have participated in the events directly leading to the death, either by committing the murder, or by aiding someone committing murder.
When former Gov. Jerry Brown signed these changes into law, it also became effective retroactively, allowing those convicted of murder prior to these legal changes the ability to appeal their felony murder convictions.
As part of the California Penal Code, murder convicts sentenced prior to these changes in felony murder law can now petition for resentencing, based on the argument that their conviction no longer holds up under the revised law.
Starting in 2021, Bentley’s legal counsel began petitioning to have Bentley resentenced using this legislation as a legal basis.
This past week, a hearing was held to discuss what evidence would be used by the court to determine Bentley’s eligibility for resentencing.
Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson argued against the inclusion of the preliminary hearing transcripts for Bentley’s case, held in 1979.
Johnson stated the transcripts would likely be relevant if his client is found eligible and if a hearing is held to determine whether Bentley is entitled to resentencing. However, he argued that including it as evidence prior to that would be “premature.”
“[The transcript’s] usefulness at this hearing is of almost no use,” Johnson told the court, “because there is nothing contained in that preliminary hearing transcript other than evidence that the court would have to engage in fact finding to make any adverse ruling on the petitioner.”
In his argument, Johnson also cited several recent court rulings regarding similar petitions made by those convicted of murder which support the non-inclusion of evidence from the preliminary hearing.
“Those cases say that the court cannot take facts from the preliminary hearing transcript in order to determine eligibility,” the public defender stated.
On the side of the prosecution, Deputy District Attorney Melinda Aiello argued that transcripts from Bentley’s preliminary hearing should be used to determine his eligibility for a resentencing, and to determine whether previous prosecutors had met the burden of proof in this case.
“The court can use the preliminary transcript because it is readily available and it is part of the record of conviction,” Aiello insisted, adding, “So the court can and should look at its document … to determine whether or not there was any way in which [Bentley] was convicted of a theory that is now improper.”
In her argument, Aiello also advocated for the inclusion of additional documentation in determining Bentley’s eligibility, including his first petition, which she claims failed to assert the petitioner’s innocence.
“[The first petition] did not dispute that he was the killer … he just left the box blank. Where it says ‘I was not the actual killer,’” Aiello stated.
In response, Johnson stated that the court could not use Bentley’s first petition in its determination, as the penal code “says itself that if a petition is insufficient, it should deny the petition without prejudice to file a new petition.”
“That’s exactly what we did in this case,” Johnson put simply.
The public defender continued, “If he made an assertion under penalty of perjury, that some fact was true, and now said it was not true, that would be a different story. However, in this instance, he failed to assert something that he needed to assert, in order to be eligible. He asserted it in this new petition.”
After both the defense and prosecution had spoken, Judge David Rosenberg expressed the difficulty in judging cases based on new legislation and revisions in the law, telling the attorneys, “This is an evolving area of the law.”
While Judge Rosenberg made it clear that he was “leaning toward agreeing with Mr. Johnson,” he told both parties that he would need to delay making a decision to do further research on both Bentley’s case and felony murder law more generally.
“I’m going to take it under submission, do a little more research, and think about it,” he stated.