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Appellate Court Vacates Murder Convictions for Three Ex-Sheriff’s Deputies in Inmate’s Death


(left to right) Now-former Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies Rafael Rodriguez, Jereh Lubrin and Matthew Farris were convicted of second-degree murder in 2017. (screenshot from KPIX 5 TV on YouTube)

Three former sheriff’s deputies who are in a California state prison for killing a jail inmate have a new chance at freedom after an appellate court vacated their second-degree murder convictions.

Jereh Catbagan Lubrin, Rafael Rodriguez and Matthew Thomas Farris will remain in prison as prosecutors decide whether to petition the California Supreme Court or retry them.

The new Court of Appeals decision specifically invites them to do the latter, but only “on a valid theory or theories of homicide with a properly instructed jury” that considers each deputy’s malicious intent.

That means under a new California law, the jury can’t be told that they can consider whether “the natural and probable consequences” of the deputies’ actions when deciding whether to convict them in the 2015 beating death of Michael Tyree. That’s the instruction the jury received in 2017 that resulted in the appellate court vacating the convictions on Monday, with justices writing that the deputies “were entitled to be tried under correct statements of California law provided to the jury and appropriate closing arguments for conviction made by the prosecutor.”

But Lubrin, 35; Rodriguez, 33; and Farris, 34, received neither, as the prosecutor repeatedly referenced the errant instruction in closing argument, at one point telling jurors, “They either deliberately did the assault with awareness, or they deliberately did nothing and walked away with no care or no concern,” according to the 27-page opinion, written by Justice Thomas M. Goethals of the 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 3, in Santa Ana.

At the time of trial, the natural and probable consequences theory was valid in California. But a state law enacted in 2018 under Senate Bill 1437 revamped how the state prosecutes homicides through the so-called felony murder rule, which allows for people to be convicted of murder if someone dies in the course of a serious felony. The changes are retroactive, and Lubrin, Rodriguez and Farris are among many inmates who’ve challenged their murder convictions under them.

The issue has been established enough through caselaw that Goethals and his colleagues Justices Eileen C. Moore and Linda S. Marks, an Orange County Superior Court judge sitting by designation, decided to keep Monday’s opinion unpublished, many it won’t be cited as a precedent.

According to their summary of the case, Lubrin, Rodriguez and Farris were working at the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose on Aug. 26, 2015, when Tyree confronted a nurse who was distributing medication, making what another inmate described as an offensive comment. Lubrin overheard the comment, and he returned to Tyree’s cell with Farris and Rodriguez a couple hours later and assaulted Tyree.

“Fifteen seconds after defendants went into Tyree’s cell, one inmate said, ‘Tyree started screaming for his life,'” according to the order. The deputies had beaten another inmate a few minutes before Tyree, but inmates told investigators Tyree’s screams were much louder than the other victims.

As described in the order, an inmate testified that when inmates were later able to interact, “people [were] saying, ‘Oh, it’s crazy. They killed that dude.’” and ‘Oh, shit. They fucking killed him.’” “Later that morning, two inmates went to the day shift officer assigned to the module and reported witnessing Tyree’s murder.”

Investigators found Google search queries on the deputies’ phones such as ‘“Can you die from punches to you.”’ and “Can you die if someone punches you in the armpit.” They also obtained text messages in which the deputies bragged about assaulting inmates, including Farris telling one coworker, “We been breaking fools off this week.”

A medical examiner concluded Tyree’s manner of death was homicide, with 34 injuries inflicted, including “a catastrophic abdominal injury” and dismissed law enforcement’s suggestion that Tyree’s injuries resulted from him falling in his cell. The defense argued in trial Tyree had committed suicide, attorneys said in oral argument in May.

Tyree, 31, had been booked on July 11 on “unspecified warrants.” He had a previous jail stay involving mental health and suicide concerns, but his July 11 booking didn’t include that classification, so he was housed in the general population instead of the jail’s so-called “acute psyche ward.” Other inmates cared for him, “with one describing him as someone with ‘special needs’ or ‘a normal person that’s not all there.'”

“Another inmate said he knew Tyree was a ‘J Cat’ — jail slang for a mentally ill inmate — and felt sorry for him because he did not bother anybody and kept to himself,” according to the ruling.

Defending the convictions, J. Michael Chamberlain with the California Attorney’s General’s Office acknowledged the new law applies here, but he said the convictions still are valid because the jury was also instructed on the still-lawful theory that the deputies acted with implied malice.

The court agreed that the jury’s verdict “indicates it concluded at least one defendant harbored the implied malice necessary to constitute murder.” But that doesn’t make up for the fact that the jury was still told “it could dispense with evaluating any particular defendant’s intent and instead convict him based on a colleague’s malice,” when that’s no longer lawful in California.

“The evidence before us would be sufficient to support these second degree murder verdicts based on a traditional ‘implied malice’ theory,” Goethals wrote. “It is, nevertheless, impossible for us to determine based on this record that no juror relied on the discredited [natural and probable cause] theory in reaching these second degree murder verdicts.”

The Santa Clara County District’s Attorney’s Office has not yet said how it will proceed. Rodriguez’s lawyer, Rebecca P. Jones in San Diego, told Law&Crime Tuesday that the office won’t specially notify the defense of their plans, and a California Supreme Court review could take years.

“If they take it, it could go off into La La Land for years,” Jones said.

Read the full order below:

[Image: screenshot from KPIX 5 TV on YouTube]

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.