The question of whether a defendant was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life is a predominantly factual question reviewable for substantial evidence, and substantial evidence supported the trial court’s findings in this case. Following a 1996 conviction for first degree murder with a felony-murder special circumstance for his role in a drug robbery/burglary resulting in death, Oliver filed a resentencing petition pursuant to former Penal Code section 1170.95 (now 1172.6) in 2019. The trial court denied the petition after a (d)(3) hearing, finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Oliver was a major participant in the felonies who acted with reckless indifference to human life. Oliver appealed. Held: Affirmed. Following the rationale in People v. Perez (2018) 4 Cal.5th 1055 (Prop. 36 recall of sentence), the Court of Appeal held that the substantial evidence test was the correct standard of review for the trial court’s findings in this case (this follows decisions by other Courts of Appeal). The Court of Appeal declined Oliver’s invitation to reweigh the evidence and concluded substantial evidence supported the trial court’s major participant findings given the evidence that Oliver was present during the planning, the significance of his physical presence during the commission of the crimes, and knowledge that the shooter would use lethal force. Substantial evidence also supported the trial court’s reckless indifference finding given Oliver’s status of “second in command” and his failure to minimize the grave risk of death despite his knowledge that the shooter “likely intended to use a firearm during the robbery/burglary to kill [the victim].” [Editor’s Note: Oliver also argued that the trial court improperly applied a substantial evidence standard in making its findings, but the Court of Appeal disagreed based on the record.]
The trial court’s failure to consider defendant’s youth was harmless under any standard. Oliver also argued that his case must be remanded so the trial court could expressly consider his youth as part of the totality of circumstances relevant to whether he was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life (he was 23 years old at the time of the crime). Although defense counsel did not highlight this factor before the trial court, the Court of Appeal addressed the issue on its merits because the relevant case law had developed after the resentencing hearing. The Court of Appeal, however, declined to establish how a defendant’s youth must be considered in the major participant/reckless indifference analysis because any error in this case was harmless (the court applied the Watson standard but stated its conclusion would be the same under any standard). The Court of Appeal concluded the evidence failed to support that Oliver’s criminal behavior was motivated by immaturity. Oliver actively participated despite his knowledge that “the incident involved a ‘grave risk of death’” and there was no evidence supporting that peer pressure compelled Oliver to assist in the murder. There was also no evidence that his level of maturity lessened his culpability for the murder.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A161773.PDF