Accomplices to murder challenging their convictions under new law

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

Felony Murder Legal Doctrine: Its Meaning And Potential Effect

*California Legislature last year voted to limit the felony murder rule to apply to cases when accomplices intended for someone to die, assisted in the killing or acted with reckless indifference to life.

*Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1437 into law in September and it took effect Jan. 1, 2019.

*There’s an estimated 800 prisoners in California convicted of murder who didn’t do the killing.

*In Sonoma County, at least two dozen inmates have filed petitions requesting a judge change their sentences under the 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.

Felony Murder Legal Doctrine: Its Meaning And Potential Effect

*California Legislature last year voted to limit the felony murder rule to apply to cases when accomplices intended for someone to die, assisted in the killing or acted with reckless indifference to life.

*Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1437 into law in September and it took effect Jan. 1, 2019.

*There’s an estimated 800 prisoners in California convicted of murder who didn’t do the killing.

*In Sonoma County, at least two dozen inmates have filed petitions requesting a judge change their sentences under the new law.

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.

Bray was released in May after spending nearly 15 years in prison when a Sonoma County judge dismissed the charges.

“This was a way to give him an opportunity. He’ll be on supervised probation ... and he has a chance to reintegrate into the community, so I thought it was in the interest of justice,” Ravitch said. “That’s a new prosecution tool as well.”

Bray, 41, couldn’t be reached for comment last week. His attorney, Steven Gallenson, said Bray “didn’t have knowledge about what was going to happen” and had been a model prisoner, eventually running the optical department.

“His wife stood by him all these years,” Gallenson said.

On the books in all but a handful of states, the felony murder rule has its roots in medieval European common law. It’s a useful prosecution tool in cases when investigators cannot determine who pulled the trigger or when multiple people are involved in killing although just one person fired the gun.

Criminal justice reform advocates have long argued it’s a draconian law that has been disproportionately used against minorities, teenagers and women. In its most strict applications, the rule can hold culpable people with little involvement in an actual killing, such as a getaway driver or when a death is an accident and not the result of a violent and intentional act.

“I’ve always said and thought that the felony murder rule itself was draconian,” Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said. “It’s ludicrous that someone can be found culpable for murder just based upon some participation in an underlying felony.”

Amid a decadelong push in California to soften tough-on-crime laws, such as recent laws reducing penalties for most drug crimes, the Legislature last year passed Senate Bill 1437 to limit the felony murder doctrine to apply to cases when accomplices intended for someone to die, assisted in the killing or acted with reckless indifference to life.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law in September 2018 and it took effect Jan. 1, 2019.

Kate Chatfield, senior advisor for legislation and policy at the Justice Collaborative who was a lead writer of the bill, said the goal was to get rid of what she called a “shortcut” in the law that allowed people to be convicted of murder without prosecutors having to prove they intended for someone to die or acted recklessly.

No shortcuts

“There shouldn’t be shortcuts,” Chatfield said. “If somebody did something and intended to kill, the prosecution needs to prove that, just like they do with all other criminal liability.”

Judges are split on the law’s validity, and the issue is likely to end up before the California Supreme Court.

“It’s a mess,” said Robert Weisberg, an associate dean at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

Most of the arguments wending their way through courthouses across the state are highly technical issues of how laws are made in California and not focused on the substance of the felony murder doctrine, Weisberg said.

An Orange County judge was the first to issue a ruling finding the law was unconstitutional, stating it improperly altered elements of two tough-on-crime propositions California voters passed in 1978 and 1990.

In June, Sonoma County Judge Dana Simonds issued an 18-page ruling in support of the law’s validity and the Legislature’s right to redefine criminal offenses.

“The mere fact that SB 1437 may affect the number of persons who ultimately receive first- or second-degree murder sentences does not mean that (the law) constitutes an amendment” to a proposition setting punishment standards, Simonds wrote.

Sonoma County cases

Then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra came out in support of the law earlier this month. In two amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs filed in different appellate courts, lawyers for the state defended the constitutionality of the law and argued the Legislature has the right to adjust the legal requirements to hold an accomplice liable for murder.

Sonoma County Deputy Public Defender Nate Raff is handling all of the inmate petitions under the new law from clients assigned to public defenders.

Among the cases is the 2011 death of a Santa Rosa man killed during a marijuana robbery outside Carniceria Contreras on Todd Road in Santa Rosa; another homicide that year was during a drunken argument among workers at an illegal pot farm in rural Healdsburg; and a 1987 case involving a former Vietnamese gang leader apprehended at the Canadian border with the gun prosecutors said was used to kill the man’s brother-in-law at a Petaluma parking lot.

The law is generating a significant workload in the courts as lawyers delve back into complex murder cases, some from decades ago. Of the many petitions they’ve received from cases that obviously don’t apply, he’s handling about eight cases — including Craver’s — that will likely go before a judge, Raff said.

“I think we’re gearing up for some considerable litigation in this area for these cases,” Raff said. “These cases, they’re all voluminous with discovery, bankers boxes full of evidence. It’s going to take a while.”

Raff said he thinks Craver has a chance at one day walking out of prison.

“These people are coming back with new hope for their family members who are incarcerated,” Raff said. “He has a big local family.”

Cutrufelli’s family is split on the question of whether Craver is guilty of murder.

Craver testified in trial that he went to Cutrufelli’s house in May 1998 on behalf of another man who said Cutrufelli owed him a stash of methamphetamine stolen during an earlier robbery. Craver brought two people with him, and he was in another room with Cutrufelli’s mother and a dog when the gun went off, according to the court records. Jurors found Craver had a gun, too, but the other man fired the fatal shot.

During the June hearing on Craver’s petition, Deputy District Attorney Robert Maddock argued to the judge that Craver is not eligible because the jury found he was a major participant in the crime and his actions showed reckless indifference to life. Craver had filed his petition for resentencing early this year with the help of a fellow inmate at a Southern California prison, and the judge appointed a public defender and granted him the chance to try again with a different legal approach.

A family member of Cutrufelli’s who didn’t want to be named out of concern for her safety said she thought Craver’s sentence delivered two decades ago was just and should not be changed. However, she does have compassion for Craver’s family. She cried when asked about Cutrufelli, who she said was still very young at the time of his death, a happy person who loved to joke around.

Cutrufelli’s father, Joe Cutrufelli, said he obsessed over the details of his son’s death during the trial because he needed to understand what happened. Joe Cutrufelli said he came to believe Craver was addled with his addiction and didn’t intend for his son to die.

“He’s probably done enough time for his part in it,” said Joe Cutrufelli, 64, of Novato. “I don’t think he needs to be in prison for the rest of his life for somebody else pulling the trigger.”

“I just hope he’s learned something from it,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine