Accomplices to murder challenging their convictions under new law
On a morning in June, about two dozen members of the Craver family took up most of the seats in the gallery of a Sonoma County courtroom. For some nieces and nephews, it was the first time they had laid eyes on Anthony Craver, an uncle beloved in the family, though he's serving a life term in a Southern California prison for murder.
About two decades have passed since Craver was a 29-year-old man with a drug problem who went to a Santa Rosa townhouse to pick up methamphetamine. Craver was in another room when his accomplice shot and killed 20-year-old Santa Rosan Joey Cutrufelli.
The law held Craver equally liable as the shooter because of what's called the felony murder rule, a legal doctrine under which prosecutors can try accomplices for murder if the death occurs while they're committing another serious crime, such as attempted robbery.
But the law changed at the beginning of this year, allowing people like Craver to petition judges to reconsider the extent of their involvement in the killing and dismiss the murder charge if their roles were limited.
“He's got a big family. He's got a job waiting for him,” said Craver's mother, Barbara Craver, 76, of Santa Rosa, who wiped away tears outside the courtroom after hearing her son's chance at freedom was far from certain.
Hundreds hoping for change
Craver, now 50, is among hundreds of prison inmates across California who are hoping that a change to the felony murder rule might help them get rid of murder convictions. For Craver, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, it meant there's hope he might spend some of his life outside prison.
“I deserve some time, there's no getting around it,” Craver said in a recent phone interview from the Sonoma County Jail. “But I didn't shoot the person. I wasn't in the bedroom when he was shot ... and life without parole, that means I'm going to die in prison.”
His June 1998 arrest made headlines because his uncle, Tony Craver, was a candidate for sheriff in Mendocino County. He was elected before the trial and served until 2005.
Advocates of the law's reform estimate there are 800 prisoners in California convicted of murder who didn't do the killing. There's no easy way to track felony murder convictions. The doctrine is a legal theory prosecutors use to try people in court for murder, but there's no mandate or mechanism to track what theories jury decisions use in convictions.
In Sonoma County, at least two dozen people have filed petitions requesting a judge change their sentences under the new law. Most don't qualify, but at least a dozen petitions still are working their way through the court system with courtroom hearings and arguments.
When judges agree to review the petitions, prosecutors must essentially retry each case, absent a jury, to go over evidence showing the extent of the accomplice's involvement in the killing. The effort to provide a chance at freedom for some can unearth painful ordeals for families of the people killed.
Implementation of the law has been uneven across the state.
While prisoners have already been resentenced and released in some areas, including one man in Sonoma County, others are seeing their petitions rejected by judges without review. District attorneys across California are objecting to these petitions, arguing Senate Bill 1437 is unconstitutional because it improperly changes earlier laws created by voters through ballot propositions passed years ago.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said her office has objected to most inmate petitions under the new law because of the question over its constitutionality. Ravitch said the felony murder rule is a valuable tool for prosecutors to hold people accountable for engaging in “extremely dangerous conduct” and “if someone dies as a result of that very serious conduct.”
“I understand the thinking behind (the change), but I don't think the individuals that wrote the law considered the impact on prosecutors,” Ravitch said. “Prosecutors have incredible discretion and instead of letting us use our discretion, the Legislature has yet again taken that discretion away from us.”
Cloverdale man released
Still, every case will be considered on its merits when a judge moves the petition forward, she said. Her office already has helped a Cloverdale man earn his release from prison after getting second-degree murder and attempted murder charges dismissed.
The case involved a 2001 fight that resulted in a fatal stabbing. Ravitch was a lead prosecutor who tried Ronald Bray and two other men for the killing. Ravitch said she stood by the prosecution of Bray, but added that his role in the crimes was far less significant than the two other men. Bray's exemplary conduct in prison also informed her decision to support his petition.