People v. Gentile

Decision Date17 December 2020
Docket NumberS256698
Citation272 Cal.Rptr.3d 814,10 Cal.5th 830,477 P.3d 539
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Joseph GENTILE, Jr., Defendant and Appellant.

Eric R. Larson, San Diego, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Xavier Becerra, Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler and Lance E. Winters, Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Charles Ragland, Lynne McGinnis, James H. Flaherty III, A. Natasha Cortina, Meredith S. White and Alan L. Amann, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Mitchell Keiter for Amicus Populi as Amicus Curiae.

Summer Stephan, District Attorney (San Diego), Mark A. Amador, Linh Lam and Michael Runyon, Deputy District Attorneys for San Diego Country District Attorney as Amicus Curiae.

Opinion of the Court by Liu, J.

When an accomplice aids and abets a crime, the accomplice is culpable for both that crime and any other offense committed that is the natural and probable consequence of the aided and abetted crime. Natural and probable consequences liability can be imposed even if the accomplice did not intend the additional offense. ( People v. McCoy (2001) 25 Cal.4th 1111, 1117, 108 Cal.Rptr.2d 188, 24 P.3d 1210 ( McCoy ).) In People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 438, 325 P.3d 972 ( Chiu ), we held that natural and probable consequences liability cannot extend to first degree premeditated murder because punishing someone for first degree premeditated murder when that person did not actually perpetrate or intend the killing is inconsistent with "reasonable concepts of culpability." ( Id . at p. 165, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 438, 325 P.3d 972 ; see id. at p. 166, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 438, 325 P.3d 972.)

In 2018, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017–2018 Reg. Sess.) (Senate Bill 1437) after determining that there was further "need for statutory changes to more equitably sentence offenders in accordance with their involvement in homicides." (Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, § l, subd. (b).) Among other things, Senate Bill 1437 amended Penal Code section 188 to provide that "[e]xcept as stated in subdivision (e) of Section 189 [governing felony murder], in order to be convicted of murder, a principal in a crime shall act with malice aforethought. Malice shall not be imputed to a person based solely on his or her participation in a crime." ( Pen. Code, § 188, subd. (a)(3) ; all undesignated statutory references are to the Penal Code.) We are asked to decide the effect of this amendment on the natural and probable consequences doctrine as it applies to second degree murder.

We hold that Senate Bill 1437 bars a conviction for second degree murder under the natural and probable consequences theory. We further hold that the procedure set forth in section 1170.95 is the exclusive mechanism for retroactive relief and thus the ameliorative provisions of Senate Bill 1437 do not apply to nonfinal judgments on direct appeal.


In June 2014, Guillermo Saavedra was found beaten to death inside La Casita restaurant in Indio where he lived and worked as the caretaker. Near his body was a broken chair, a broken beer bottle, a wooden stick, and a broken golf club with Saavedra's blood on it, as well as bloody shoe and sock prints. Also found in the restaurant were cigarette butts containing DNA from defendant Joseph Gentile, Jr., his ex-wife Saundra Roberts, and Saavedra.

Around 1:00 a.m. the day before Saavedra's body was found, surveillance footage captured Gentile wandering around the nearby Royal Plaza Inn. Several minutes later, another camera outside a laundromat next to the Royal Plaza Inn showed Gentile with Roberts and Roberts's boyfriend Stephen Gardner. When a detective retraced Gentile's steps from the surveillance footage, he found a bloody sock containing Saavedra's DNA as well as DNA consistent with Gentile's profile.

Gentile was charged with one count of first degree premeditated murder (§ 187, subd. (a)) with sentencing enhancements for personal use of a deadly weapon (id. , §§ 12022, subd. (b)(1), 1192.7, subd. (c)(23)) and for one prior conviction (id. , § 667.5, subd. (b)).

At trial, the prosecution and Gentile presented dueling accounts of the events surrounding Saavedra's death. Saundra Roberts was the primary witness for the prosecution. She testified that on the day Saavedra was killed, Roberts, Gentile, and Saavedra met at La Casita restaurant. The three talked and drank alcohol there into the evening. At one point, Gentile and Saavedra got into an argument, but they remained friendly and there was no violence. After several hours, Roberts felt drunk and left to go sleep at a homeless encampment about one block away. When Roberts woke up around 1:00 a.m. or 1:30 a.m. that night, she went to a nearby convenience store and saw Gentile across the street in the parking lot of the Royal Plaza Inn. Roberts approached Gentile and saw that his shirt was wet. Roberts recalled Gentile saying that he had gotten into a fight with a man, that he "hurt him pretty bad," and that he "might have killed" him. Roberts called Gardner and asked him to bring a spare set of clothes, which he did. When Gardner arrived and realized that the clothes were for Gentile, he became angry and left. Roberts said she then left and did not see Gentile again.

Gentile provided a different account to the police. He said that when he arrived at the restaurant to meet Roberts, there was a man there he had never met. Roberts told Gentile that she was staying at the restaurant with the man. At some point, Roberts also told Gentile that the man had "been raping" her. Gentile then punched the man several times but did not use any weapon. Roberts then said the man would never rape her again, and she began hitting him with what Gentile thought was a sledgehammer. Gentile took the weapon away from Roberts, but she retrieved it and resumed hitting the man. Gentile took the weapon away from Roberts a second time, threw it to the ground, and left the premises. Gentile denied ever striking the man with a weapon.

Gentile's friend Charlotte Sullivan testified that Gentile was scheduled to visit her in Imperial Beach during the Fourth of July weekend in 2014. In late June, around the time that Saavedra was killed, Gentile called to ask if he could come out earlier than planned. When she agreed, Gentile came out later that same day. When he arrived, Gentile's hands were swollen, but he did not initially mention anything about being in or witnessing a fight. Eventually, Gentile told Sullivan that he had gotten into a fight with another man. He said that he was drunk and that Roberts had told him the other man had raped her. Gentile said he punched the other man a few times, but eventually the man apologized and Gentile stopped hitting him. At that point, Gentile said, Roberts had picked up a club and started hitting the man with it. Gentile was arrested at Sullivan's residence on June 28, 2014. Sullivan testified that a day after the arrest, Roberts called her and said that the man who was killed had raped her and that Gentile got upset about it. Roberts also said that Gentile and the man got into a fight and that she left before anything else happened. Further, according to Sullivan, Roberts said that she later went back to the restaurant, "bleached everything," and cleaned up the mess.

The trial court instructed the jury on three separate theories of first degree murder: (1) that Gentile was the direct perpetrator of the murder; (2) that he directly aided and abetted Roberts in the commission of murder; and (3) that he aided and abetted Roberts in the commission of felony assault with a deadly weapon (§ 245, subd. (a)(1)), the natural and probable consequence of which was death. During deliberations, the jury asked the court, "Are fists considered a deadly weapon?" The court responded, "No." The jury then convicted Gentile of first degree murder and found not true that he personally used a deadly weapon. The prosecution dismissed the prison prior, and the court sentenced Gentile to 25 years to life in prison.

A series of appeals followed. In Gentile's first appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed his murder conviction after finding that the natural and probable consequences jury instruction for first degree murder violated Chiu , supra , 59 Cal.4th 155, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 438, 325 P.3d 972. ( People v. Gentile (Feb. 27, 2017, E064822), 2017 WL 747647 [nonpub. opn.] (Gentile I ).) The court found it "probable that the jury convicted defendant on an unauthorized legal theory" because the trial court had instructed the jury on the natural and probable consequences theory and the jury did not find that Gentile used a deadly or dangerous weapon in committing the crime, suggesting that the jury did not think he was the actual perpetrator. ( Ibid. )

The Court of Appeal remanded the case for the prosecution to decide whether to "retry [Gentile] for the first degree murder under theories other than natural and probable consequences" or to accept reduction of Gentile's conviction to second degree murder. ( Ibid. ) It did not reach Gentile's other claims.

On remand, the prosecution elected to accept a reduction to second degree murder, and Gentile was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life. Meanwhile, on September 30, 2018, the Governor signed Senate Bill 1437 into law, which, effective January 1, 2019, amended the Penal Code to modify accomplice liability for murder and the felony murder rule. (Stats. 2018, ch. 1015.)

Gentile appealed again, raising the issues the Court of Appeal left undecided in his first appeal. He also sought leave to file a supplemental brief arguing that Senate Bill 1437 applied retroactively to his conviction and that it eliminated second degree murder liability under a natural and probable consequences theory. The Court of Appeal rejected Gentile's arguments and affirmed his second degree murder conviction....

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