An appellate court has reversed the murder convictions of the three Northern California deputies convicted in the 2015 jail beating death of a mentally ill inmate after a judge ruled that the primary legal theory prosecutors cited was invalidated by recent changes in state law.
In 2017, former Santa Clara County Sheriff deputies Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriguez were convicted by a San Jose jury of second-degree murder in the death of Michael Tyree. They were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
On Monday, Thomas Goethals, associate justice of the Fourth District court’s third division, noted in his ruling that Senate Bill 1437, passed in 2018, declared invalid the natural and probable consequences theory. That meant that while the jury instruction was proper at the time of the trial, it no longer is. And, Goethals said, the impact of the law is retroactive, the Mercury News reported Monday.
During the deputies' trial, the judge told the jury it could consider a legal theory known as “natural and probable consequences,” which would allow it to find a defendant guilty of murder even if the person may not have committed the killing, because the victim’s death was a natural consequence of the defendant’s actions. In the Tyree case, this meant that the jury did not need to consider each defendant’s individual responsibility or awareness in order to find all three guilty of second-degree murder, the newspaper reported.
Prosecutors said Lubrin, Farris and Rodriguez severely beat Tyree, 31, in his cell. He died hours later from internal bleeding and suffered significant liver and spleen damage. Tyree was serving time for misdemeanor theft and drug possession. He had been housed by himself in a section of the jail reserved for inmates who are in protective custody or have special needs.
The state Attorney General’s Office said Monday it was reviewing the ruling. Unless the office appeals, Goethals’ conclusion will stand, and per his ruling, “the prosecution may elect to retry defendants on a valid theory or theories of homicide with a properly instructed jury.”
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office was not prepared to announce whether it will refile the case, also saying in a brief statement, “We’re reviewing the court’s decision.”
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Rebecca Jones, the attorney who represented Rodriguez, lauded the court’s ruling.
“Prosecutors should not have been allowed to consider the NPC theory, and the appellate court could not find it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Jones said. “I think (the court) did the right thing.”
Attorneys for Lubrin and Farris did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.