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Hundreds In San Diego Hoping For Reduced Sentences For Murders They Didn't Commit And More Local News

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This year, California became one of the few states in the country to pass legislation limiting felony murder convictions. But the law change has powerful opponents who are challenging it in court. Plus, a Honduran man granted U.S. asylum may still have to go back to Mexico, SDG&E has a new helicopter to help fight wildfires, and San Diego County launches a program to replace high-emission vehicles.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 It's Thursday, August 8th. I'm Deb Welsh and you're listening to San Diego news matters from KPBS coming up. A Honduran band, granted us asylum may still have to go back to Mexico and does a man deserve to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime? He didn't commit

Speaker 2: 00:17 for me to be comfortable with the point of leaving this or love on this floor. Clearly something was wrong with me. I had a criminal way of thinking

Speaker 1: 00:24 that and more San Diego news stories right after the break.

Speaker 3: 00:31 Um,

Speaker 1: 00:33 thank you for joining us for San Diego News Matters. I'm Deb Welsh for the first time ever on asylum seekers set back to wait in Mexico under a new Trump administration policy. One his asylum case in the u s but the u s government might try to keep him in Mexico if it chooses to appeal the decision. KPBS reporter Max Roseland Adler has more on this developing situation.

Speaker 4: 00:57 The refugee who goes by the first name, Alec was an Evangelical Church leader in Honduras where he was targeted by [inaudible] gang members for evangelizing young members of the gang. Sue says his lawyer, Robin Bernard with Human Rights First on Tuesday, Alec became the first asylum seeker nationwide in the migraine protection protocols to win their asylum case and gain legal status to be in the United States. Explain Barnard.

Speaker 5: 01:22 So he was among the first group that were sent back to Tijuana in January. He's been waiting there for six months for his day in court and yesterday an immigration judge heard him testify for several hours and decided based on his testimony that he met the definition of a refugee under United States law.

Speaker 4: 01:40 But right now Alex sits in detention at the sand seizure port of entry as the government considers returning him to Mexico once again. Well, it appeals the decision. This appeals process could take years. The Department of Homeland Security now has 30 days to decide whether it will appeal the ruling. Max Will Adler k PBS news.

Speaker 1: 01:59 There are lots of stories of people in prison for murders. They say they didn't commit, but what if the court agrees the person didn't take part in the killing, but sentences him to life anyway, that was the reality for California prisoners. Under the felony murder rule. A new law this year was supposed to change that, but KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger says that change is on hold.

Speaker 2: 02:24 Hi. Uh, I have some older kids in my neighborhood, uh, but I thought they were going to popularize at home.

Speaker 1: 02:29 This is Sean Khalifa describing the biggest mistake of his life.

Speaker 2: 02:34 I thought maybe I could go steal something from the house.

Speaker 1: 02:38 It was January, 2004 and Sean was just a few days past his 15th birthday. He and a friend acted as lookouts while the other two boys went into the house according to court documents.

Speaker 2: 02:51 And a few seconds later, the door opens and the 18 year old kid, one Pena, he grabbed me by the shirt and pulls me in the house and he's yelling. He's like, is this what you wanted to see? Is this what she wanted to see? I look over to where he's pointing and Mr Levin is dead on his living room floor.

Speaker 1: 03:08 The two boys had quote, savagely tortured and beat, love to death. According to court documents. Khalifa swears he had no idea his friends could commit such heinous acts. However, he also takes responsibility for getting into that situation. Looking back, Khalifa admits he was a thief and ran with a bad crowd

Speaker 2: 03:31 for me to be comfortable with the point of leaving Mr. Love on this floor. Clearly something was wrong with me and I. I had a criminal way of thinking.

Speaker 1: 03:39 Khalifa was convicted of first degree murder even though he had no prior knowledge of the killings and wasn't in the house when they were committed. He was sentenced to 25 years to life and spent three years in juvenile hall. Then was transferred to Donovan State Prison in San Diego. He is serving the sentence because of California's felony murder rule, which allows a defendant to be charged with murder for a killing that happened during a dangerous felony, even if the defendant is not the killer one participant goes off on, these are her out. You kill your buddy. All participants are equally liable for first degree murder. Kate Chatfield is an adviser at the Criminal Justice Advocacy Organization, the justice collaborative. She says, a new California law limited the rule. It says people can't be convicted of murder unless they were the actual killer. Help the killer or quote acted with reckless indifference to human life.

Speaker 1: 04:40 For example, someone who participates in a robbery where a clerk is killed and let's say that young man takes out his gun and shoots it a bunch of times or waves it around, fires it off and you know, misses the clerk. The new law says people sentenced under the felony murder rule can apply for re-sentencing. Asked me, 1437 is not just a get out of jail free card for people who are in prison, they have to petition to superior court. Chatfield says there isn't a good tracking system, but she estimates up to 800 people in California could be eligible for reduced sentences under the law. But the law has powerful opponents who are challenging it in court, essentially allows people to get away with murder and the more sophisticated they are of a killer, the more they're going to get away with murder. San Diego district attorney.

Speaker 1: 05:35 Summer Steffen is one of several California DA's contesting the law in court. If they all wear masks and you can determine who shot the gun, then all three or four or two we'll get away with murder, but this doesn't describe what Khalifa did. He helped a robbery that turned into a murder. Stephan says there are other ways people like him can get reduced sentences when they could petition for re sentencing if they truly had a lesser role. But Khalifa has asked the Riverside court for a lesser sentence multiple times and has been denied. Tomorrow we'll talk about what it has been like to grow from a boy into a man while behind bars. Clare Trigere, Sir KPBS news KPBS reached out to the family of the man who was killed and did not hear back. Stay tuned for the second part of the series tomorrow. The inspector general for the Veterans Administration criticized the San Diego VA's handling of the death of a veteran who died of suicide in 2018 KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh says the case may change the way vets are deemed high risk for suicide.

Speaker 4: 06:50 The San Diego VA was treating an unnamed veteran who had earlier attempted suicide by x fixation. The vet had sought treatment on and off at the VA and a private contractor paid for by the VA in the summer of 2018 the patient came into the er complaining of suicidal thoughts. He later died by x fixation. The report questions the process use remove the flag that shows the patient was at high risk for suicide. At the moment, the VA does not have consistent guidelines nationwide to determine when the high risk status should be removed. The San Diego VA released a statement saying that they are working with the national VA to ensure that the consistent processes are developed. Alerting staff to the presence of veterans who may have higher risk for suicide. Steve Walsh, KPBS news,

Speaker 1: 07:37 San Diego musical theater, just open the jukebox musical, all shook up that pays tribute to Elvis Presley. KPBS arch reporter Beth luck Amando speaks with the shows director Robert J. Townsend about the lasting appeal of Elvis. You may not think that Elvis and Shakespeare go together, but all shook up sets Presley's music to a story inspired by the Bard's 12th night with a little sixties civil rights movement thrown in for good measure, but director Robert j towns and says it's the music and rabble rouser Elvis that are the main appeal. He was

Speaker 6: 08:10 challenging authority and breaking the rules. It seems very subtle to us now, but at that time it meant a lot. What he was doing was almost offensive to people. So I think it speaks to people being individuals and speaking out and being who they are, even against the grain. That's what sort of the theme of this show is. In a way. It's like everybody's like the mayor is telling us what to do and it's like, well, we don't want to do that. We want to be

Speaker 1: 08:34 us. San Diego musical theaters all shook up. Continues through September 1st at the Horton Grand Theater. Beth like Amando KPBS news, a new state audit finds the department of Healthcare Services isn't doing enough to ensure medical enrollees in rural areas have access to care capitol public radios, healthcare reporter Sammy k Yola as more on the department shortfalls, auditors say the department isn't enforcing state limits on how far health plans can send patients for care. That leaves some traveling hundreds of miles to see their doctors. The new report looks at 18 rural counties, mostly in northern and central California where the department contracts with commercial health plans to deliver medical services. The auditor recommends the department give those plans a specific target for how many medical providers they must attempt to recruit and that they require the plans to document efforts to expand their networks. The department says it will not conduct the suggested statewide assessment on the provider shortage in these counties, but it will implement most of the other recommendations in Sacramento.

Speaker 1: 09:40 I'm Sami Ola, California Senator Diane Feinstein made some sweeping claims about America having the most gun deaths in the world and more guns than people. Capitol public radio is politifact reporter Chris Nichols. Fact checked her statements. Feinstein made her claims on Twitter this week after the mass shooting in El Paso and hours before the one in Dayton, we found there's no official count for the number of guns in our country. Only widely varying estimates. Some put the total as high as 390 million guns, far more than the u s population. Others placed the total closer to 260 million, far lower because the data is unsettled. We decided not to place our rating on that claim. We did, however, find that Brazil and not the United States had the most overall gun deaths of any country. Brazil has held this ranking for several years. As a result, we rated this part of Feinstein's claim false in Sacramento. I'm Chris Nichols. San Diego is investor owned. Utility is showing our firefighting vehicles that'll be in the region this fall. KPBS reporter Eric Anderson says SDG and e is responding to rising temperatures and fire risk.

Speaker 7: 10:58 Cal fire officials say there have already been 160 vegetation fires in San Diego County since the first of the year. Fire Captain Nick Schuler says that's why it's important to keep building local firefighting assets. Schuler says the new Black Hawk helicopter being leased by San Diego gas and electric will help but air power isn't a complete answer.

Speaker 2: 11:19 Aircraft themselves aren't just the answer. We have to have firefighters on the ground, but the ability for aircraft to support firefighters on the ground enhances the safety of our firefighters. It enhances the safety for those who need to evacuate.

Speaker 7: 11:33 The SDG and e Blackhawk helicopter is new, but the larger carrying capacity air crane has already served the region for a decade on more than 170 missions. Eric Anderson, KPBS News San Diego County's

Speaker 1: 11:48 launching a campaign aimed at cleaning up the air in some of the counties. Most communities, KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman says millions of dollars are now available to help organizations purchase low emission vehicles.

Speaker 8: 12:05 [inaudible]

Speaker 9: 12:06 trucks are constantly rumbling through San Diego County, South Bay often heading toward the ports. Some port tenants have already started investing in electric and lower emission vehicles, but county supervisor Nathan Fletcher says more needs to be done or when you look at the simple reality that a child in Barrio Logan is eight times more likely to have asthma than a child in La Jolla. I believe that is morally wrong. County staff is allocating $28 million of state funds to businesses, government agencies and nonprofits so they can swap out polluting machinery for electric and low carbon options. $28 million alone is not going to do it, but it is a positive step in the right direction. The county says the money will first go to areas that need it the most, like Sherman Heights, Barrio Logan and portside areas, Matt Hoffman, k PBS news.

Speaker 1: 12:49 The California Public Utilities Commission has drawn fierce criticism for how it regulates electric utilities like PG d yet the new wildfire liability law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this month gives it even more responsibility to ensure the safety of utilities equipment and decide when rate payers should pay for wildfire damages. Capitol public radio has been, as far as the PUC is outgoing president Michael Picker, why the new law was needed?

Speaker 9: 13:18 Well, California has weird laws that some of which established the PUC, but another one of which applies to all utilities is called inverse condemnation and it says that if a utility is implicated or caused a harm, then they become the first payer. Doesn't matter whether you are negligent, you stand in for the insurance companies you pay. We also see that wildfires are getting much bigger and more ferocious. The new normal, everyone likes to say, yeah, it's and so the amount of damages is much bigger, so the utilities have a hard time paying those claims at the same time that they have to pay for current operations. We've always held that they should pay all the costs if their equipment is implicated. But how do you deal with the fact that the nature of wildfires has changed? Is Climate change involved? Should we have a different standard where climate change is part of the problem and that I think is what the legislature is reflecting as they're trying to balance this where the fire may have been caused by the utility, but in the past it probably wouldn't have been as bad inverse condemnation, not particularly common in other states, but you run into the fact that here in California there's not a lot of public sympathy for utilities who were perceived as not doing enough to keep the grid safe.

Speaker 9: 14:45 The PUC were designed to actually make the tough decisions about things that don't like and how to pay for them. People like the outcomes of the things utilities do. They like having reliable electricity. They like having reliable water, they like having reliable telephone service, but they just don't like having to be accountable to these very large instance. Let's for those expenditures. Would you say that the new wildfire liability law is good policy or the least bad option? When we're faced with the prospect of more utilities, including PGNE filing for bankruptcy protection sausages in successfully made and a lot of folks publicly perceived the PUC is not doing enough to ensure that utilities keep their equipment as safe as can be. And meantime, electric rates go up, but you still have fires that are caused by electric equipment where setting liability aside on the front end, maybe the PUC didn't do enough in forcing the utilities to do so.

Speaker 9: 15:48 We're at a point in history where you need to have somebody who's inspecting everyone of 4.2 million poles and 200,000 miles of wires that go through wildlands where people have now settled and to really put eyes on them. And so the question is, how's the best way to do that? The cost to have a state labor force that went out just on a five year basis to look at those poles and those wires someplace around 15 to $21 million. I'm not sure the legislature's ready to authorize that in rates. They gave us more staff. We're now at 38 people who regulate all 4.2 million poles and 200,000 miles of wires. That's not really going to do it. So this seems like a little bit of an unmanageable mess.

Speaker 1: 16:39 Outgoing California Public Utilities Commission, President Michael Picker speaking with capitol public radio's been Adler. Thanks for listening to San Diego News matters. If you like the show, do us a favor and tell your friends and family to subscribe to the show.

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San Diego News Matters

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