This man’s imprisonment shows why California’s ‘special circumstances’ rule must change, reformers say

Jamil Wilson was planning to celebrate his 20th birthday with friends so he didn’t think much about it when before the party one of them asked if they could pick up another pal at his house in Cerritos.

What Wilson didn’t know, he later said, was that his two friends were plotting a murder that night in 1994. By being at the crime scene, he would become an ignorant accomplice.

According to interviews and court documents, Wilson and his friends Adrion McFarlin and Duane Gittens were later arrested in connection with the murder of Gitten’s mother, Delphina Gittens. Duane Gittens said he took part in the murder because his mother abused him for years.

Although Wilson maintained his innocence, he was charged with first-degree felony murder and aiding and abetting a conspiracy and was later convicted. Due to a harsh criminal law recently passed by California voters, Wilson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996, which ended up serving 25 years.

Wilson, whose sentence was commuted in 2019, is now a voice for reforming California’s criminal justice laws through a bill being debated in the state capitol.

SB 300, also called the Sentencing Reform Act, would rewrite part of Proposition 115, a 1990 ballot initiative that expanded the definition of first-degree murder to include murders committed during other serious crimes. Critics say this change in the law has unjustly sentenced scores of Californians to life in prison over the past three decades, many of them black people like Wilson who were accomplices who did not kill anyone or acted with intent to kill.

Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), author of SB 300, said judges should have more discretion in sentencing accomplices who may have unwittingly involved themselves in a horrific crime.

“I don’t blame the voters. I’m not necessarily blaming anyone for the results we’re getting today, but we’re still getting them,” Cortese told the Times when discussing the 1990 voting measure.

As for Wilson, he hopes to avoid unduly severe sentences for young people who could face decades, if not their lives, behind bars. In his case, the underlying crime was aiding and abetting a conspiracy to commit murder. Police claimed he intended to benefit from life insurance.

“During my sentencing, the judge in the courtroom literally cried and said he wished he could give me a lesser sentence,” said Wilson, who was still living with his parents at the time of his arrest. “After hearing the case, he knew deep in his heart that I didn’t deserve life without parole.”

While Cortese calls SB 300 a modest reform, his legislation has come under fire from victim groups and some prosecutors, who deny charges of “special circumstances” are being used to punish people with sentences they don’t deserve.

“Our laws recognize that it is inherently more dangerous when people conspire. There is some level of guilt, common guilt, among all of these individuals,” said Greg Totten, executive director of California District Attorneys Assn. “The law strikes at the very nature of victims’ rights and goes against what we believe is in the best interest of public safety.”

Proposition 115 – also known as the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act – was passed by 57% of voters in 1990 and was a response to both high profile murder cases and the perception that liberal judges of the time were allowing the worst criminals to dodge swift and harsh sentences.

The new law expanded the definition of felony murder and the punishment for it. Since then, criminals convicted of murder and another underlying offense – “special circumstances” – have been sentenced to one of two sentences: life imprisonment without possibility of parole or the death penalty.

Members of crime victim groups have continued to fight for Proposition 115 all these years later.

One of them is Lauren Pettigrew, who lost her 22-year-old brother David in 2007 when he was fatally shot after three Marines broke into his Long Beach apartment. All three men were convicted under the felony murder rule.

“My family has been broken up for fifteen years. We are truly haunted every day,” said Pettigrew, who spoke out against SB 300 before the assembly’s Public Safety Committee in early June.

Proponents of the Cortese bill argue that people convicted in special circumstances are also victims.

Tammy Cooper addressed the California State Assembly on June 1, 2022.

Tammy Cooper, who served 28 years in prison for a murder committed by her molester, addressed the California state assembly on June 1.

(California State Assembly)

Tammy Cooper, a California woman who became a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 14, has served 28 years in prison for a murder committed by her abusive pimp. Cooper’s mistake was telling her abuser about a man who kept extra cash in his apartment and would be easy to rob.

When the pimp killed the man, they both fled the scene, and Cooper – the driver – eventually turned herself in. She was charged with felony murder under special circumstances and eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole. Her molester was convicted on a lesser charge. Cooper, who was in her early thirties at the time of the crime, was charged under the Special Circumstances Act because she was at the scene of the murder and burglary.

“I built my life in prison,” Cooper told the Times. She said she used her time there by attending an abuse trauma group twice a week for ten years and helping to start a group to help other victims of human trafficking. “[Those groups] helped me a lot.”

A large majority of women incarcerated in the United States have been victims of domestic violence, and the number of incarcerated women is rising nationwide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jamil Wilson leans out of a window.

Jamil Wilson looks out the window of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. His life sentence was commuted in 2019.

(Josh Edelson / For the Times)

“We’ve seen a pattern over time where women are disproportionately convicted of crime statutes as enforcers,” said Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser with Smart Justice California, adding that “women often play the role of getaway drivers.”

Alisa Bierria, a professor of gender studies at UCLA and an anti-violence advocate working to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence, said at a June 1 news conference that the current law in California is “so extreme ” be.

“If you have a law that punishes people for something someone else did, that law will disproportionately hit victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking because those victims can’t break free from abusive individuals,” Bierria said. She and others say black women — like Cooper — are often the most vulnerable.

In Cortese’s view, the existing law leads to “de facto racism” – with youth of color being disproportionately covered under the provisions of Proposition 115.

Cortese has also defended against claims his bill would affect previous victims of crime – noting that it is prospective, not retroactive, and does not allow for re-sentencing. Proponents say that would only apply to a small portion of the population — with an average of 15 people a year being convicted under California’s felony-homicide rules in special circumstances.

SB 300 has passed the Senate and supporters are now waiting to see how it fares in the more moderate state assembly. Cortese says the biggest hurdle is getting 54 votes out of 80 seats in that chamber.

During the 2018 legislature, the legislature passed a similar law, SB1437 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, which limits who can be prosecuted for murder to those who commit or intend to commit murder. This law was signed into law to reduce the number of inmates in the California prison system and allow individuals to spend less time in prison.

Skinner’s bill was seen as a step in the right direction to protect suspected criminals, according to justice reform advocates. However, Skinner’s account at the time did not account for cases involving special circumstances, such as when he was at the scene of a murder where another crime, such as robbery, was also being committed.

During his tenure, former Gov. Jerry Brown commuted both Wilson’s and Cooper’s sentences. For a sentence to be commuted, an incarcerated person goes through an intensive process that includes a review before a parole board to decide if they have served enough time and are safe to be released.

Released from prison for three years, Jamil Wilson – who went by the name Taewon Wilson when he was arrested – now works with previously incarcerated people at a nonprofit in the Bay Area. After his release, he reunited with his high school sweetheart, to whom he wrote letters for years behind bars, and they soon married. She also works with previously incarcerated individuals. They plan to visit his family in his native South Korea next year.

Four years later, Cooper is now working as a trauma counselor for previously incarcerated women who have been sex trafficked, abused, or killed their abusers and who are returning to society.

Cooper said the main pillar of her work is placing women into other probation programs. Not all women are eligible for help from the program she works for, but “I always make sure they have a point of contact.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-29/criminal-justice-reform-special-circumstances-unwitting-accomplice This man’s imprisonment shows why California’s ‘special circumstances’ rule must change, reformers say

Alley Einstein

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