Former Hancock College basketball players Ali Mohammed and Lavell White were sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the special circumstance murder of 23-year-old Terence Richardson, a decision their attorneys said they plan to appeal.
Convicted of the December 2014 murder in April after a five-week trial and a week of deliberations, Judge James Voysey sentenced the pair to the life behind bars without possibility of parole. Earlier in the proceedings, the District Attorney's Office elected not to seek the death penalty for the pair.
Though the jury convicted the men for the murder, they did not find Mohammed guilty of intentionally discharging the firearm. The remaining burglary and robbery charges were subsequently dismissed after the jury failed to reach a verdict on those counts.
Describing Mohammed, 23, as stoic throughout the proceedings, Senior Deputy Public Defender Lori Pedego said she was disappointed by Voysey's decision to deny her motion, calling on the court to reject the life sentence. Citing Mohammed's lack of proven intent and legal precedence regarding the application of the felony murder rule, Pedego argued that sentencing Mohammed to life would be unconstitutional.
"The California Supreme Court finds [the felony murder rule] problematic in that it assigns punishment without moral culpability," said Pedego, explaining that it "ratchets up" instances of involuntary manslaughter or accidental killing to "to the most serious punishment possible," including death or life without parole. "Mr. Mohammad's youth, ... background, his complete lack of criminal history, him being led astray as opposed to the mastermind of [the shooting] and the accidental nature of the killing, we thought ... could lead the court to find the application of life without parole unconstitutional."
Had the court sentenced Mohammed under guidelines for first-degree murder, he would be eligible for parole in 25 years.
Defense attorney Michael Scott said he had planned to file a notice of appeal Tuesday on behalf of White, 26, who could benefit from Gov. Jerry Brown's approval of SB 1437, which modified the felony murder rule as it applies to accomplices. He anticipates state appellate courts and the California Supreme Court to review cases over the coming months and years that will establish who qualifies and receives relief under SB 1437.
"[Under] that law, my client may get the benefits of that law because he was not the actual shooter and the DA's theory was not one that he shot but that he was present — and assisted — in the robbery," Scott explained. "As such, he may get the benefits of the reduction."
Scott said he believes there's a "good likelihood" of an appeal due to the "number of appellate issues and evidence I thought was admitted over defense objection that shouldn't have been."
"But you never know what an appellate court will do," he said. "Certainly, the majority of cases do not end up in reversal, but I think there's a good possibility that this case can be reversed or returned."