Defendant’s first degree murder conviction based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine must be vacated in light of People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155. In 2008, Lopez was convicted of first degree murder based on his involvement in a gang-related shooting. He was not the shooter. At trial, the prosecution presented three different theories of liability for first degree murder: (1) Lopez directly aided and abetted the murder, (2) Lopez aided and abetted the target crime of disturbing the peace and the subsequent murder was a natural and probable consequence of disturbing the peace, and (3) Lopez conspired to disturb the peace and the subsequent murder was a natural and probable consequence of the conspiracy. After the California Supreme Court decided Chiu, Lopez filed a habeas petition, arguing that his first degree murder conviction should be vacated. Held: Vacated and remanded. In Chiu, the Supreme Court held an aider and abettor may not be convicted of first degree premeditated murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine. An aider and abettor’s liability for premeditated first degree murder must be based on direct aiding and abetting principles. The court here agreed with People v. Rivera (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 1350, 1356, which held that the reasoning of Chiu applied equally to uncharged conspiracy liability. In the present case the prosecutor acknowledged that the evidence Lopez directly aided and abetted the murder was weak and encouraged the jury to convict him of first degree murder based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine because it had “[n]o intent to kill requirement.” Under these circumstances, habeas relief was warranted. The People may either accept a reduction to second degree murder or retry Lopez for first degree murder under a theory other than natural and probable consequences.
Chiu applies retroactively to convictions that were final on appeal when Chiu was decided. Lopez’s conviction was final on appeal when Chiu was decided. The Chiu opinion does not state whether it applies retroactively to convictions that were final on appeal when it was decided. Here, the Court of Appeal concluded that Chiu applies retroactively based on the reasoning in People v. Mutch (1971) 4 Cal.3d 389, 392. A court’s new interpretation of a criminal statute, which had previously been misconstrued, is not a change in the law but a declaration of what the intent of the Legislature had been. “Whenever a decision undertakes to vindicate the original meaning of an enactment, putting into effect the policy intended from its inception, retroactive application is essential to accomplish that aim.” (Woosley v. State of California (1992) 3 Cal.4th 758, 794 [citations omitted].) Murder, aider and abettor liability, and coconspirator liability are all statutory. “By limiting the scope of aider and abettor liability in the commission of murder, the court in Chiu was, in effect, engaging in statutory interpretation and declaring the Legislature’s intent . . . .” Accordingly, Chiu must be applied retroactively.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/G051238.PDF