The California Attorney General's Office has filed a petition for review with the state Supreme Court asking the justices to hear a case involving an Appeal Court opinion that overturned the second-degree murder convictions of three former correctional officers for the beating death of Santa Clara County inmate Michael Tyree, who had mental illness.
Tyree was booked into Santa Clara County jail on July 11, 2015, for an alleged violation related to his probation for a misdemeanor drug possession that was being monitored in Santa Clara County Superior Court's mental health court and a petty theft charge. He was placed in with the general jail population instead of the acute psychiatric ward, although a previous booking classification for him had included mental health/suicidal codes. The 31-year-old man was fatally beaten by officers Matthew Thomas Farris, Jereh Catbagan Lubrin, and Rafael Rodriguez on Aug. 26, 2015.
A jury convicted the three men of second-degree murder in 2017. They were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Their attorneys appealed the conviction, claiming the primary legal theory prosecutors used had been invalidated in 2018 by changes in state law.
In an Aug. 1, 2022, opinion, state Court of Appeal Judge Thomas Goethals, associate justice of the Fourth District Court's third division, overturned the men's convictions because Senate Bill 1437, which passed in 2018, declared invalid the "natural and probable consequences" theory. Goethals said in his opinion that the law is retroactive.
A natural and probable consequence is one that a reasonable person would know is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes. An aider and abettor under the theory is liable for the natural and reasonable consequences of any act that he knowingly aided or encouraged.
But SB 1437 states that "it is necessary to amend the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder, to ensure that murder liability is not imposed on a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life."
At the three men's original trial, the court's instructions gave the jury two alternative theories regarding second degree murder, Goethals noted. The first involved implied malice murder in which each defendant acted with malice aforethought to cause Tyree's death. The alternative theory involved a second-degree murder based on an aggravated assault or an assault under color of authority during which a person in each defendant's position would have known that murder was a "natural and probable consequence" of such an assault.
The state Attorney General's Office argued the jury was also instructed with a still-valid theory of second-degree murder liability — implied malice murder — and any error arising from the trial court’s instructions on the natural and probable consequence theory was harmless. Goethals disagreed.
On Aug. 23, the Court of Appeal denied the Attorney General's petition for a rehearing. Two additional judges declined to change the Goethals' judgment. His ruling also allows prosecutors to retry the three defendants "on a valid theory or theories of homicide with a properly instructed jury."
Sean Webby, a spokesperson for the Santa Clara County district attorney, said the office is waiting on the results of the attorney general's petition for review with the Supreme Court before deciding whether to retry the case. The petition for review is due Sept. 12.
Tyree's killing sparked the county's creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission to publicly examine Santa Clara County's custody operations, which made more than 600 recommendations on jail reform. The county settled an excessive use of force claim with Tyree's family for $3.6 million in 2016.