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From Hopeless to Free
USC Gould School of Law

Monday, June 14, 2021

Post-Conviction Justice Project changes lives of two clients

By Lauren Rogers and Heidi Rummel

William (second from right) with his family after his release.

Students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project, headed by Professors Michael Brennan and Heidi Rummel, recently won life-changing victories for two clients. 

William and Jerome were both teenagers tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison (juvenile life without parole or “JLWOP”). Both were convicted of special circumstance murder, under California’s then-felony murder law, for minor roles in robberies where others committed murder. In the face of hopeless sentences, both chose to commit to changing their lives and rehabilitate. Today, William and Jerome are living free after more than two decades in prison, and the courts have vacated their murder convictions. 

William had just turned 16 when he acted as a lookout for an older friend who robbed and spontaneously shot the robbery victim. Although William never confronted the victim or touched the gun, and certainly never imagined his friend would shoot anyone, he was tried as an adult, convicted of special circumstance murder, and sentenced to JLWOP.

At age 17, Jerome was also sentenced to die in prison for his role as a last-minute, impromptu driver in an attempted robbery-turned-murder. Waiting alone in his truck during the robbery, Jerome never expected anyone to be hurt. Jerome had no history of violence, and almost no criminal history, before his arrest. 

PCJP sponsors legislation changing murder convictions

California laws and courts condemned William and Jerome to serve an adult sentence designed for the “worst of the worst,” at a time when society viewed youth, especially youth of color, as “super predators.” In recent years, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that children who commit crimes are constitutionally less culpable than adults, because their brains are not fully developed and because of their capacity for growth and maturity. The Court also outlawed certain extreme sentences for children, including the death penalty and life without parole, as violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The California Supreme Court agreed in People v. Franklin, citing extensively to an amicus brief filed by PCJP. 

In the wake of these holdings, PCJP has co-sponsored groundbreaking California legislation to provide second chances for youth serving extreme adult sentences. In 2018, PCJP co-sponsored Senate Bill 1437, effectively eliminating the felony murder rule in California. Now, a murder conviction in California requires that the accused to have killed or intended to kill or demonstrated reckless indifference to life; mere participation in a robbery that unforeseeably turns into murder is not enough. 

Advocacy reunites clients with families

PCJP advocated for William and Jerome, filing habeas petitions challenging both their JLWOP sentences and their special circumstance murder convictions. The project pursued multiple legal remedies for William in the Los Angeles County Superior Court and First District Court of Appeal, and ultimately the courts vacated his murder conviction. William was immediately released from prison on a time-served sentence in November 2020 and has since been reunited with his friends and family. 

Jerome’s JLWOP sentence was reduced to a parole-eligible sentence in Riverside County under Senate Bill 9, legislation co-sponsored by PCJP, which made Jerome immediately parole eligible with a new sentence of 26 years to life. He was granted parole and released from prison in 2018. Nearly three years later, PCJP again represented Jerome under the new felony-murder law and his murder convictions were vacated. He was successfully discharged from parole in March 2021. 

Neither William or Jerome were ever the “worst of the worst”— in fact, both men were models of rehabilitation in prison and have been successful in society as they rebuild lives they never dreamed of living. Jerome works as a certified drug and alcohol counselor, has a successful business, and is a proud new father. William is currently working for Mass Liberation, a transitional home and re-entry program for recently released lifers and is enjoying spending time with his family. PCJP continues to fight for second chances for clients like William and Jerome, and to advocate for policy and legislative changes to move toward a more fair and just criminal system in California. 

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