(CN) - It was improper for a court to resentence a convicted murder on aiding and abetting after crediting his claim that he did not pull the trigger, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
In a long dissent to the ruling, one appellate judge argued that the majority had punished California for "doing the right thing," and predicted the precedent "will create a disincentive for states to correct prisoners' sentences in similar situations in the future."
A jury convicted Ronald Taylor of felony murder, attempted robbery and grand theft auto related to the 1987 murder of Lewis Lim, the owner of a Pioneer Chicken restaurant in Sunland, Calif. There were two men involved in the incident, but police arrested Taylor alone after discovering his palm print in a stolen car used in the crime.
Facing life without parole, Taylor came clean in 1996 about what happened that day. He told state prosecutors that his cousin, Hugh Hayes Jr., had pulled the trigger on Lim.
With Taylor's brother and Hayes' girlfriend backing that story, California tried Hayes for the murder, but a jury found him not guilty. Though prosecutors believed Taylor, the California Board of Prison Terms rejected their 1999 petition for resentencing.
Taking matters into his own hands, Taylor filed a pro se habeas petition in state court in 2004. Two years later, again with the intervention of the state attorney general, prosecutors convinced the trial court to reduce Taylor's sentence to that of an abettor rather than a shooter.
But Taylor, not content with the new sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, fought for a new trial, arguing that the jury had never found him guilty of aiding and abetting the robbery.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright denied Taylor's federal habeas petition, the 9th Circuit ruled 2-1 Wednesday that the resentencing violated Taylor's rights to due process and a jury trial.
"The state may not imprison Taylor for a criminal role the jury considered and expressly found he did not play," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the majority.
"The state essentially asks us to ignore what the jury found," she added. "The state contends it is sufficient that the jury was instructed on aiding and abetting, along with felony murder. Yet the jury had to choose between two mutually inconsistent roles. To convict Taylor as an aider and abettor under California law, the jury would had to have found that he specifically intended to encourage or assist someone else in robbing the restaurant." (Emphasis in original.)
On remand, the trial court in Los Angeles must either retry Taylor or release him.
Judge Richard Clifton wrote in partial dissent that the majority went too far.
"On Taylor's petition for habeas corpus, the majority rules that the state may not resentence Taylor but must instead retry him or let him go," Clifton wrote. "I expect that it may be difficult for the state to retry him successfully more than a quarter century after the crime was committed, for reasons having nothing to do with Taylor's actual guilt or innocence. Thus, the result of our decision may well be to free Taylor and wipe this crime off his record. By punishing California for doing the right thing in reducing Taylor's sentence, our decision will create a disincentive for states to correct prisoners' sentences in similar situations in the future."
While agreeing with the other judges that the resentencing had violated Taylor's rights, Clifton argued for harmless-error review rather than a new trial.
"Justice is not served by the result reached here," he concluded.