Weakening Sentencing Laws Threatens Public Safety

Government’s primary role is to ensure its residents are safe and laws are in place to mandate behaviors to keep people safe. Sentencing laws are enacted to enforce those behaviors and guarantee violent criminals are kept off the streets, so we all can feel safe.

Where is the breakdown?

In Sacramento today, there is an incomprehensible effort to ignore the anguish of victims and push forward efforts to aid criminals. Senate Bill 300 authored by Bay Area Democrat State Senator Dave Cortese is but one terrible example.

One evening, two young marines, who were also cousins – irritated that their laptop trade for cocaine had not yet produced the goods – found a fellow marine with lasting brain trauma after multiple tours of duty in Iraq. Sadly, these two cousins seized their advantage, recruiting him to kill the person they believed responsible for the delay.

As they drove him south to pick up his gun and back north, passing Camp Pendleton, all the way to Long Beach – these two cousins reminded him they wanted this guy dead. The men ambushed 22-year-old David Pettigrew in his apartment, and the two cousins demanded drugs, reaffirmed they wanted him dead, and watched as he was shot to death.

It’s a horrible story. One with so many opportunities to change course, but – given the weakened mental state of the shooter and the consistent push by the two who recruited him – one that ended in premeditated tragedy. The shooter testified, and all three were convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

SB 300 was introduced on behalf of the mother of one of the two masterminds of this murder.

If passed, it would strip the ability of judges to put someone away for life without parole who knowingly engaged in a criminal activity they knew involved a grave risk of death – and while not the actual killer, still acted with reckless indifference to human life, as a major participant in a violent felony which resulted in death, and was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

We are not talking about someone who sat outside and waited in the getaway car.

This special circumstances sentencing law was passed by voters as part of Proposition 115 in 1990, called the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act. Voters recognized regardless of whether an individual was the actual person who committed the murder, the fact they had participated in the act with the intent to kill, or knowing full well their actions could cause death, is just as egregious as the act of murder itself.

Imagine two people engaging in a violent sexual assault, and one finishes by smothering the victim. The prosecution knows both were involved in a horrific, violent act but may struggle to prove who officially completed the final act – or that even the non-killer had expressed an intent to kill. Proposition 115 ensured major participants in dangerous felonies, acting with reckless indifference, could be appropriately punished for such vicious crimes.

Additionally, while the author opines that the legislation really was not introduced specifically to assist the masterminds of the Pettigrew murder, Senator Cortese still refuses to add explicit language guaranteeing it is not retroactive and will only apply to murder that occur January 1, 2023 forward. The problem with that? With the Estrada Rule, so named after a case in 1965, the Court determined when legislation is silent on retroactivity, it must be presumed that its intent was to be retroactive.

Watering down the consequence for participating in the act of murder sends the wrong message and compromises community safety. As Greg Totten of the California District Attorneys Association noted, “Our laws recognize that when you have people conspiring together, it is inherently more dangerous. There is a level of culpability, shared culpability, among all those individuals.”

Why would this bill even be introduced now? This is the terrible consequence of one political party having a two-thirds super majority: no one has to answer tough questions. There are over 5000 prisoners in California serving LWOP sentences, not just the 250 on death row analyzed by the State.

But details, they get in the way of the ability to ram legislation through – even if it means weakening the criminal justice system to seek equity only for violent criminals and not their tortured victims.

As law enforcement points out, under this legislation, if two individuals shoot at a law enforcement officer and that officer dies, but it is proven that only one bullet killed the officer – then the person whose shot did not hit the officer would not be subject to the same penalties. It is a rollback of voter decision, and it is a travesty.

No family members left behind should be subject to a lifetime of parole hearings simply because a super majority means tough questions can be avoided. Senate Bill 300 is a blatant attempt to weaken sentencing laws, and it is a direct threat to public safety.


Laurie Davies currently represents the 73rd Assembly District. Due to redistricting, she is running for the 74th Assembly District, which will include the San Diego cities of Oceanside and Vista as well as the South Orange County cities of Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano.