Habeas relief warranted because People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155, error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under the Chapman test for prejudice. Johnson and other gang members beat a rival to death. Johnson was charged with first degree murder. The prosecutor asserted numerous theories in support of that charge, including direct perpetrator liability and aiding and abetting an assault where the natural and probable consequence of the assault was murder. The jury convicted Johnson of first degree murder. After the California Supreme Court decided People v. Chiu, Johnson filed a habeas petition arguing that it required reversal of his first degree murder conviction. Held: Petition granted. In Chiu, the Supreme Court held that “an aider and abettor may not be convicted of first degree premeditated murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine.” Because Chiu represents a substantive change in the law that eliminated the natural and probable consequences doctrine as a basis for a conviction of first degree murder, it is retroactive and habeas relief is warranted unless the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18. (See In re Lucero (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 38; In re Hansen (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 906.) The error here was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury was instructed on the invalid natural and probable consequences theory and did not indicate on the verdict form whether it relied on that invalid theory to convict. Furthermore, a forensic expert was unable to opine as to whether Johnson’s actions or the other gang members’ actions caused the victim’s death. The Court of Appeal could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury’s verdict was based on the valid direct perpetrator theory. The judgment was vacated and the case remanded.
Court of Appeal exercised its original habeas jurisdiction despite fact petitioner did not first present the petition to the trial court. Johnson filed his habeas petition directly in the Court of Appeal without first seeking relief in the trial court. “It has long been the law in California that, while a Court of Appeal may have original jurisdiction in a habeas corpus proceeding, it has the discretion to deny a petition without prejudice if it has not been first presented to the trial court.” (In re Kler (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 1399, 1403.) Because Johnson’s habeas petition raised a legal issue that did not require any further factual development and because appellate courts are more experienced in determining prejudice than the superior court, the Court of Appeal elected to exercise its jurisdiction to resolve the writ petition.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A145625.PDF