Progressive Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon’s effort to reduce the sentences of every murderer in the county received a setback last week courtesy of the state’s Second District Court of Appeal. In the case of People v. Machado a unanimous panel held that a trial judge has the discretion to refuse a sentence reduction even if both the district attorney and the defense attorney request it. The City News Service reports that convicted murderer Earnest Machado appealed a trial judge’s refusal to reduce his 25-years-to-life sentence for a 1982 conviction for first-degree felony murder. He claimed that SB 1437, a 2018 sentencing reform law eliminating most murder convictions for accomplices, invalidated his conviction. In this case, the evidence indicated that both Machado and his accomplice participated in the murder and robbery, allowing both to be convicted under the felony murder rule. Machado also claimed that Gascon’s 2020 directive ordering his deputies not to oppose a murderer’s request for a reduced sentence, required the judge to grant it.
The trial judge held that, based upon the evidence, Machado did not qualify for a reduced sentence under SB 1437 and that the lack of opposition by Gascon’s office, did not require the court to reduce his sentence. The appeals court agreed, noting that “Contrary to Machado’s claim, the plain language of section 1172.6, subdivision (d)(2) does not dictate that the court must vacate the defendant’s sentence in all cases where the parties so stipulate.” The court added, “If Machado’s interpretation were correct, the prosecution and the defendant could jointly agree to the correct interpretation of the law in the defendant’s case, reducing the court to a mere rubber stamp.”
In another unanimous Second District Court of Appeals case (People v. Vargas), gang member Cynthia Vargas appealed a Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s refusal to reduce her first-degree murder sentence, which Gascon had supported. Vargas was convicted of first-degree felony murder, and received a sentence of 60-years to life, for encouraging a fellow gang member to shoot a man during a fight in an LA County park. The fight broke out when Vargas and fellow gang members Cesar Alcantar, and Daniel Luna, confronted three young men at the park who were not affiliated to any gang. When Alcantar insisted that the men did belong to a rival gang, and slugged on of them in the face, a fight ensued. Several witnesses testified that during the fight, which Alcantar was loosing, Vargas yelled at Luna, “Shoot the motherfucker.” A few seconds later Alcantar yelled, “Hurry up. Shoot this motherfucker.” Luna pulled out a handgun and shot one of the men in the back, and then followed-up with a second shot to the head.
In her petition for a sentence reduction, Vargas, like Machado, claims that SB 1437 voids her conviction because she did not personally kill the victim. The court held otherwise noting,
“Here, substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that appellant acted with implied malice to directly aid and abet the murder. The evidence presented at trial established that from the beginning, Vargas was inextricably involved in the events that led to the murder and she was directly responsible for prompting Luna to shoot and kill John. Even if these circumstances did not establish express malice on appellant’s part, they certainly constitute sufficient evidence upon which the trial court could find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that appellant acted with implied malice in aiding and abetting the murder. [T]he essence of aiding and abetting a murder under an implied malice theory is the accomplice’s act of aiding, by words or conduct, the commission of a life-endangering act with knowledge of the danger to life that the act poses….Appellant knew that firing a gun into a brawl could ultimately result in someone’s death, but she directed Luna to do it anyway. She did not object when Luna walked over to John and finished what she had started, nor did she try to stop him. Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that appellant is guilty of murder under a still-valid theory….”
It is likely that both of these decisions will be appealed. One wonders if state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who as a member of the state Assembly in 2018, voted for SB 1437, and as attorney general has colluded with District Attorney Gascon to reduce the sentences of murderers, will participate on the side of the murderers, or their victims.