A San Diego County Superior Court judge has vacated a decades-old felony-murder conviction, opening up the possibility that a man condemned to die in prison will be released.
Advocates believe Brian Mason is the first person in San Diego County serving life without parole to successfully petition a judge for a new sentence under state law.
As Voice of San Diego reported in March, Mason was part of a group involved in a motel room robbery in National City that ended when another man pulled out a gun and began firing. Though Mason didn’t pull the trigger, he was considered responsible for the murder that took place in 1999 and denied the ability to seek parole in the future.
That’s no longer the case.
Following a two-day hearing earlier this month, Judge David Berry ruled that the evidence fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mason knew his conduct involved a “grave risk of death” and demonstrated a “reckless indifference to human life.” These seemingly convoluted phrases were, in fact, legal hurdles that needed to be met for Mason’s petition to be successful.
Mason’s case, like hundreds of others in California, is testing the limits of a statewide criminal justice reform, signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, that advocates portrayed as a blow against mass incarceration. Opposition to SB 1437, which scaled back the definition of what constitutes a felony murder, came from district attorneys. Other court rulings have also laid the groundwork for relief in felony murder cases.
“There will be more to come,” said Kate Chatfield, a policy advisor who drafted SB 1437.
In court records, Mason’s attorney, Vickie Fernandes, pointed to neuroscience suggesting that adolescents and emerging adults are physiologically predisposed to risky, impulsive behavior because of a still-developing brain. Mason was fresh out of high school then, and Fernandez essentially argued that he was a byproduct of his gang-infested community, not a murderer, and therefore deserving of compassion.
The question of Mason’s mental state at the time was an important one. In response, deputy district attorney Christina Arrollado argued that the punishment Mason received was just because his participation in the robbery enabled the killer. He may have tried to calm the shooter down, she said, but “his actions speak differently.”
After spiking the murder charge, Berry scheduled a resentencing hearing for Dec. 15 on a handful of other crimes of which Mason had been found guilty. Those include robbery, attempted robbery and residential burglary.
The judge gave no indication from behind the bench on Wednesday where he might ultimately come down. It’s possible he could hit Mason with another life sentence thanks to gang and gun enhancements added to his charges by prosecutors.
But even in that case, Mason will still be eligible for parole in the near future, a prospect that hadn’t previously been available to him.
“It shows me that the courts are not just taking young people away for crimes that they did not do, but are looking at the actual brain science, the ability of the person of that age to even make the proper decision or stop or intervene or even know someone’s gonna do that,” said Laila Aziz with Pillars of the Community, who’s been mobilizing support for Mason. “It’s a big step for San Diego.”