California court overturns murder convictions of 3 deputies

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — An appeals court overturned the murder convictions of the three Northern California deputies sentenced to jail in 2015 for beating a mentally ill inmate to death after a judge ruled ruled that the primary legal theory cited by prosecutors was invalidated by recent changes in state law.

In 2017, former Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriguez were convicted by a San Jose jury of second-degree murder in the death of Michael Tyree. They were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

On Monday, Thomas Goethals, Associate Judge of the Third Division of the Fourth District Court, noted in his ruling that Senate Bill 1437, passed in 2018, declared the theory of natural and probable consequences invalid. This meant that even if the jury instruction was appropriate at the time of the trial, it is no longer. And, Goethals said, the law’s impact is retroactive, Mercury News reported Monday.

During the deputies’ trial, the judge told the jury he could consider a legal theory known as ‘natural and probable consequences’, which would allow him to find a defendant guilty of murder even if the person did not may not have committed the murder, because the victim’s death was a natural consequence of the defendant’s actions. In the Tyree case, that meant the jury did not need to consider the individual responsibility or conscience of each defendant to find all three guilty of second-degree murder, the newspaper reported.

Prosecutors said Lubrin, Farris and Rodriguez severely beat Tyree, 31, in his cell. He died a few hours later of internal bleeding and suffered extensive liver and spleen damage. Tyree was serving time for misdemeanor theft and drug possession. He had been housed alone in a section of the prison reserved for detainees in police custody or with special needs.

The state attorney general’s office said Monday it was reviewing the decision. Unless the bureau appeals, Goethals’ conclusion will stand and, according to his ruling, “the prosecution may elect to retry the defendants on a valid theory or theories of homicide with a properly instructed jury.”

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office was not ready to announce whether it would refile the case, also saying in a brief statement, “We are reviewing the court’s decision.”

Rebecca Jones, the attorney representing Rodriguez, welcomed the court’s decision.

“Prosecutors should not have been allowed to examine the NPC theory, and the appeals court could not conclude that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Jones said. “I think (the court) did the right thing.”

Lawyers for Lubrin and Farris did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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