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Brian Mason was a recent high school graduate with a job when he drove his friends to a National City motel in July 1999. A year later, he was serving out the rest of his days in prison for a gruesome death, even though he didn’t pull the trigger.
A jury convicted him of first-degree murder with a special circumstance, more commonly known as the felony murder rule. Because Mason was part of a group involved in a robbery, each was responsible for the killing that took place in the course of it. The killing was considered a natural consequence of the underlying felony.
Mason’s punishment under the law was automatically elevated to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Thanks to a change at the state level, though, Mason is now able to petition the court for relief. In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1437 into law. The bill scaled back the definition of a felony murder and opened up a procedural process to request a lesser sentence. Prosecutors must now demonstrate in felony murder cases that defendants acted with malice.
Some advocates portrayed the bill at the time as a blow against mass incarceration and an attempt to roll back the excesses of the tough-on-crime era that created liability for accomplices. But there are still people in prisons awaiting their new day in court. One San Diego case is putting the criminal justice reform to the test.
Mason’s upcoming hearing on March 15 is an opportunity to re-examine the conviction and present new evidence in light of other, more sympathetic court rulings that have allowed felony murder defendants elsewhere to vacate their sentences. If Mason is successful, his case could have broader implications for other people from impoverished neighborhoods who say they’ve been doomed to die in prison not for what they’ve done but for who they are.
No one contests that a murder took place and that Mason was there when it did. Rather, the central, and somewhat convoluted, legal question is whether Mason was a major participant in the crime and whether he engaged with reckless indifference to human life.
What exactly happened in July 1999 has been the subject of debate for decades. Court records show Mason and his friends partied with motel guests at the Colony Inn. Everything seemed to be going fine until some of the guys started rapping and the host got upset at something they’d said about a rival gang.
After the manager complained about the noise, Mason and the others who weren’t spending the night left. Outside, Mason tried to calm one of his friends down. But they returned later in the evening.
“He said he left his clothes behind, that was my understanding,” Mason told me of his friend. “And all hell breaks loose.”
Once inside, the friend pulled out a gun. That’s where the stories diverge.
The state argued that Mason, at his friend’s direction, got violent and tried to steal a gold chain while yelling something about his Lincoln Park gang. As the fists started flying, the gunman countered with two bullets, one of which struck the party’s host in the head.
Mason maintains today that he did not know his friend was planning to rob or hurt anyone. He said he stood in the back, by the door, and witnesses misidentified him at trial for someone else in the group.
Prosecutors argue that Mason was indeed a major participant who showed a reckless indifference to human life, and numerous courts over the years have sided with the state. But a new judge isn’t necessarily convinced.
Mason’s case could also test the limits of another theory. Mason’s attorney, Vickie Fernandes, is pointing to research in the field of neuroscience that suggests adolescents and emerging adults are physiologically predisposed to risky, impulsive decision-making because of a still-developing brain.
She is essentially arguing that Mason was young and impressionable. He may have made some bad decisions, but he isn’t a murderer. He’s a byproduct of his environment — a gang-infested community — and deserves compassion.
To put it another way, the actions of young people from distressed neighborhoods shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. To understand crime, one must also understand the conditions underlying it, especially for those who haven’t yet turned 26.
“State and federal law is coming around to the idea that people under that age shouldn’t be treated as adults,” Fernandes wrote in support of Mason’s petition. “It significantly reduces his culpability.”
Supporters of SB 1437 argue that the felony murder rule is unfair for another reason — it allows for unchecked prosecutorial discretion that’s resulted in huge disparities.
Joanne Scheer with the Felony Murder Elimination Project, one of the sponsors of the reform, found that as of July 2018, there were 5,206 people in California serving life without parole. Most had never been in trouble with law enforcement before that. About two-thirds were between the ages of 16 and 25. The median age was 19. And 35 percent of them were Black, despite representing 6 percent of the state’s population.
On average, Scheer and others estimated last year, one person every three days in California is sentenced to life in prison for a crime they did not directly commit.
Scheer’s own son is one of those people and she’s been tracking similar cases statewide. On occasion, she told me, the accomplice will end up getting a harsher punishment than the actual killer.
That didn’t happen in Mason’s case, but it did happen to Tammy Cooper Garvin, who’d been abused by her boyfriend and sex trafficker for years. She suggested one of her clients as a target for robbery and the boyfriend was later accused of stabbing the man to death. But the boyfriend was acquitted and went free. Garvin spent nearly three decades in prison before the governor commuted her sentence.
San Diego County Supervisor Joel Anderson, a Republican, co-authored SB 1437 when he was in the legislature, and he viewed it as a step toward a more fair and balanced criminal justice system.
“Despite critics’ fears that this bill would turn murderers loose, this ‘felony murder rule fix’ actually ensures that a person’s sentencing is appropriate to their role in the crime,” he said in a statement.
In the end, the author altered the bill in response to opposition from law enforcement. As Anderson explained, lawmakers ended up “flipping the burden of proof so that the petitioner is the one required to show eligibility for resentencing — an amendment added at the concern of district attorneys.”
Even so, some district attorneys, including San Diego’s, tried to stop the new law from going into effect.
Another bill that passed the Senate last year would go one step beyond SB 1437 and repeal the provisions of law that require people convicted of felony murder to get the death sentence or life without parole. It would allow judges to choose the appropriate punishment.
Many of the accomplices in felony murder cases have said they couldn’t properly defend themselves the first time around, and Mason is no different. He initially lied to police about his whereabouts that night. His attorney at the time wanted him to take the stand and testify, but he declined. He feared he could be killed in retaliation, so he stayed quiet.
Instead, Mason requested a trial separate from the shooter’s, but the court turned him down. It offered to house him somewhere else.
“If you want to live the life of a gangbanger and you get caught in the act, this is what it leads to,” the judge said. “That’s a hard decision he’s got to make.”
The state emphasized that the murder victim had referred to Mason and his friends as “slobs,” a crip insult against bloods, before everyone left the party. A detective was called to translate the meaning of rap lyrics, found after the shooting, as evidence the intruders were part of a murderous conspiracy intent on defending their image.
At trial, the state was unable to demonstrate that Mason helped plan the crimes. The gun didn’t belong to him. Today, Fernandes argues that even if the victim testimony shows Mason was a participant in the robbery, the state has been speculating and exaggerating about what was going through his mind.
Given the law at the time of the shooting, the state didn’t necessarily need to. Deputy district attorney Christina Arrollado acknowledged that Mason may have tried to calm the shooter down but said “his actions speak differently” because he didn’t try to keep the peace inside the motel room. She believes the punishment he received was just because his participation in the robbery enabled the killer.
Even if Mason is given the opportunity to go before a parole board in the future, he’ll have another hill to climb.
“There has to be a first step of acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility and ownership of actions in a crime, and remorse,” Arrollado said. “I don’t think he’s met that.”
Speaking to me by phone from the George Bailey Detention Facility, he conceded he isn’t perfect. He said he grew up in a household with two brothers who were active gang members and remembered getting into fights on the way home from school. He was steeped in the culture at a young age.
Contrary to the state’s claims, Mason said he’s sorry about what happened that night and sorry he didn’t react in a way a more mature person would have. More than a decade ago, he started going to rehab and counseling groups.
The clinicians have given him high marks for being highly motivated and thoughtful. He also helped raise money for the Special Olympics.
Mason has been tempted to reach out to the murder victim’s family but he understands why that’s a bad idea. Doing so without permission could cause harm.
“There’s two ways to show remorse,” he said. “You can show direct remorse and indirect remorse. Because it was inappropriate to show direct remorse, I showed indirect remorse, which was working on myself and giving back to the community.”