California’s Third District Court of Appeal has unanimously overturned the first degree murder conviction of a Sacramento man whose wife jumped from his pickup and died during his attempt to kidnap her. The court’s ruling held that because the victim jumped from her husband’s truck while trying to escape him, under a recently enacted state law, he could not be held responsible for her death. In 2018, the state legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1437 into law. As reported by Metropolitan News Enterprise, the measure eviscerated the state’s felony murder rule, which had for decades, allowed accomplices to a felony such as kidnapping to be charged with murder if someone died during the commission of the crime. Under SB 1437, only the actual killer; someone who aided, participated in or solicited the murder; or was a major participant in the felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life, could be convicted of the murder.
The defendant, Jerry Vang, has a history of beating his girlfriends going back to 2002. While most of the incidents were not reported to police, in 2007 he was convicted of assault likely to result in great bodily injury. In 2011, police officers had to break down his door to rescue a girlfriend Vang had tied up and was beating with a knife sharpener. He was convicted of domestic violence for that assault. Yet under California’s weak sentencing “reforms” Vang remained free in the community to attack additional women.
In the very early morning hours of February 3, 2017 a witness observed Vang’s pickup truck traveling down a four-lane thoroughfare at about 45 miles per hour. As the truck passed he heard crying inside the truck, then saw the passenger door open and a woman fall out, hitting her head on the pavement. The truck stopped and Vang got out, swearing at the woman as he tried to drag her back to his truck. He eventually gave up and got back into the truck and started it, apparently intending to drive away when the police arrived. The woman died hours later from her injuries.
At trial, multiple witnesses testified about Vang’s brutality, including putting a gun to his wife’s head and threatening to kill her and their infant child. The jury also heard testimony about the multiple times his wife had run to relatives homes with the baby to escape Vang’s violence. Jurors also learned of Vang’s statement to police about running his wife’s car off the road and ordering her into his truck on the night she died.
Thanks to SB 1437, dozens of accessories to murder have avoided responsibility for their crimes and scores more have petitioned to have their convictions and sentences reduced. People v. Vang provides an example of the injustice caused by this law.