'Jacque Wilson was in his car heading home from a softball game on a late August evening when his phone rang. It was his friend Kate Chatfield: She told him California Senate Bill 1437 had finally passed and was headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. “And I’m driving, and I just break down crying,” Wilson told The Intercept.
The new law would dramatically redefine use of the state’s archaic felony murder rule in criminal prosecutions. It would also mean that Wilson’s younger brother Neko might finally be coming home after more than nine years behind bars awaiting trial for a grisly crime that he insists he played no part in.
Neko Wilson was one of six people charged with the robbery-murder of Gary and Sandra DeBartolo, who had an illicit marijuana grow operation inside their Fresno County home. The state alleged that Neko and the others planned to steal the dope and whatever cash was in the house. But that plot apparently went sideways. Minutes after two of the accused conspirators, Leroy Johnson and Jose Reyes, entered the DeBartolos’ home on the morning of July 22, 2009, the couple was killed, their throats slashed. After a high-speed chase, police caught up with the getaway car.
Neko was not at the DeBartolos’ house that day, and he wasn’t in the getaway car. Still, he was arrested and charged with the couple’s murder. Prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty for Neko under the felony murder rule.
A throwback to English common law, the felony murder rule works like this: Say two people decide to burgle a house, and in the process, one of them shoots and kills the homeowner; even if the shooting was completely spontaneous, and even if one of the burglars didn’t know the other had a gun, both could be held equally liable for the murder. Neko Wilson might not have been there when the DeBartolos died, but prosecutors alleged he was the one who hatched the plan for the robbery, which meant he was responsible for what happened even if he didn’t kill anyone.'
Read more: Landmark California Law Bars Prosecutors From Pursuing Murder Charges Against People Who Didn't Commit Murder
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