Convicted murder accomplice has sentenced reduced, is released

On Christmas Day 2003, Jesus Aaron Gaytan was arrested for being the getaway driver for a botched Visalia carjacking — during the carjacking, one of the gang members was killed. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“He was not the actual killer that pulled the trigger, but under California law at the time, it basically classified everyone that intended to do a serious and violent felony as the same if, during the commission of that crime, someone died,” Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward told KMPH FOX26 News.

Gaytan attempted for years to appeal his case but all failed.  He had one more chance under a new law passed in 2018 that repealed the “felony murder rule.”

The felony murder rule allowed a jury to convict a defendant of murder if they were a major participant in a crime that resulted in someone getting killed.

The new law, SB1437 repealed that rule and mandates that a defendant cannot be convicted of a murder they did not commit, but only the target crime, such the robbery or the burglary,

SB1437 also provided for a petition procedure for a defendants to seek to vacate their murder conviction and obtain resentencing.

“A defendant who could not be convicted of first or second degree murder under the new law may file a petition in the trial court to seek to vacate his or her first or second degree murder conviction,” the Central California Appellate Program’s website reads.

SB1437 also stipulates that the prosecution has the burden of proof at the hearing beyond a reasonable doubt to prove the defendant is ineligible for resentencing, and both parties may present new evidence, or rely on the record of conviction.

Gaytan filed a petition under the provisions of SB1437 in the Tulare County Superior Court requesting a resentencing. The hearing was held on April 4.

TCDA prosecutors argued against Gaytan’s petition for resentencing saying in their brief, “the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was a major participant in the carjacking and acted with reckless disregard for human life.”

The 2005 jury, the brief said, “clearly decided Gayan’s participation in the crime involved a great risk of violence and death and that the crime was malicious.”

Ward also presented new evidence against Gaytan provided by Jose Mejia, the gang member who actually pulled the trigger. Mejia claimed that Gaytan provided him with the gun. Ward also presented evidence that the gang intended on committing murder, a carjacking or both.

In the end the court sided with Gaytan and his murder charge was vacated. He was convicted of attempted carjacking with a prior strike and resentenced to seven years, which he had already served.

His sentence was reduced on April 4 “in Department 10 of the Tulare County Superior Court, the court reduced the sentence of Jesus Gaytan, age 40, from life without the possibility of parole to seven years under provisions set forth in Senate Bill 1437 (2018) addressing accomplice liability for felony murder,” according to the District Attorney’s press release.

Gaytan is now a free man.

Christmas Morning, 2003

Juanita Marquez, one of the four gang members that participated in the carjacking, was originally charged with murder. But she agreed to testify for the state in exchange for pleading guilty to manslaughter.

The following sequence of events is based on Marquez’ testimony.

She testified that early in the morning of December 25, 2003 she, Gaytan, Mejia, and Sabas Rodriguez were smoking methamphetamine while Rodriguez was drinking shots. Rodriguez was bored and suggested that they do a “jale,” which meant to “jack a car or do a drive-by or something like that.” Mejia suggested carjacking, and Gaytan agreed.

All three men armed themselves, and they headed to Tulare but they could not locate any car or truck that Mejia wanted. They then decided to go to Visalia. They entered an apartment complex in the 3300 block of W. Caldwell and chose a truck that Mejia wanted. Once the vehicle was chosen, they concluded that Mejia was going to steal the vehicle and Rodriguez was going to be the lookout because Gaytan was too tired to participate in the carjacking. Gaytan instead was going to be the driver for the current car that they were in. Mejia and Rodriguez then left to do the carjacking.

At 5:30 a.m. Christmas morning the owner of the truck, Andrew Parks, was asleep in the living room when he awakened by the honking alarm of a vehicle. He looked outside and saw two people in his parked truck and a third person circling around the back of the truck. As Andrew went out the front door of the apartment, he heard the truck start and saw the third person hop into the passenger seat of the truck. Andrew ran for the driver’s side, opened the door, yelled, “You like my truck, mother fucker,” and punched the driver.

Jason, his brother, who also was awakened by the truck’s alarm, ran to the passenger side, opened the door, and pulled the man seated out of the truck. Jason tried to pull the man in the middle of the seat out of the truck, but “somehow went to the ground.” He then wrestled with the man he had first thrown out of the truck.

At one point, someone from the middle of the truck pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and pointed it at Andrew’s face. Andrew grabbed the barrel of the gun, pushed it toward the windshield, and proceeded to focus on the person with the handgun.

The carjackers then got out of the truck.

The brothers heard a gunshot or “pop,” and Jason saw a muzzle flash and tasted gunpowder. The passenger Jason had been struggling with fell to the ground.

Mejia accidently shot his friend, Rodriguez, rather than Jason.

While sitting in the getaway car Marquez heard the truck start up so she told Gaytan to start the car. While they were waiting for the truck to move, she heard a gunshot. Gaytan began driving the car towards the direction of the truck, when they observed Mejia running towards them. They asked Mejia about Rodriguez, and Mejia responded that he did not know but that they needed to depart the apartment complex.

In pursuit of the carjackers, Andrew backed up the truck, but the driver’s door was open and he tore the door off on a carport post. The brothers then noticed a body on the ground on the passenger side of the truck. They called the police.

Officer Mike Verissimo arrived at the scene and found a damaged truck in the middle of the parking lot and a dead body near the passenger door. Officer Verissimo discovered a nine millimeter shell casing five feet from the body. The victim was identified as Sabas Rodriguez.

Juanita Marquez and Jesus Gaytan were arrested separately later that day after police received tips from Rodriguez’ family. Gaytan was carrying a .38-caliber revolver when he was arrested. Mejia was arrested the following day.

On May 18, 2005 Gaytan was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murder and attempted carjacking.

Mejia was convicted of first degree murder and attempted carjacking. Mejia received a sentence of 22 years 6 months on the attempted carjacking and life without possibility of parole plus 20 years for murder.

Is the “Felony Murder Rule” Justice?

Should someone be convicted of murder even if they didn’t pull the trigger?

The Tulare and Kings County District Attorneys, and many law enforcement officers, believe they should.

A Tulare County lawyer who has been on both sides of a murder case but prefers to not to give their name said, “As a citizen I am sick to death of violent crimes. I have very little sympathy for those that participate in a violent crime.”

Before the passage of California Senate Bill 1437, a person accused of committing a violent felony could be convicted of murder if the felony resulted in the death of someone.

But starting on January 1, 2019 the new law states that murder liability cannot be imposed on a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted.

“I disagree with the new change in the law. It will allow violent offenders to try to re-litigate their cases causing unnecessary cost and needless risk to our communities,” Kings County District Attorney Sarah Hacker said.

Ward says he’s upset with the consequences of this “criminal-friendly law” because victims’ families have to endure revictimization.

“What’s frustrating is we were telling the legislature when they were considering passing this bill, and we told the governor, that it is going to have unintended consequences and that murderers are going to get released,” Ward told KMPH. “But as it turns out, it appears Mr. Gaytan is the exact kind of criminal that the legislature intended to benefit.”

Because of SB1437, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office has received over 200 petitions from convicted murderers requesting a lower sentence.

About 48 defendants have been resentenced with nine defendants being released.

Kings County will be facing the same issue of convicted murders requesting resentencing. Hacker said those types of cases are in the works.

“We have received requests for resentencing, but they have not yet been decided by the courts,” she said.

The local lawyer was not surprised.

“Passing SB1437 was inevitable because the three strikes law went too far. People were getting locked up for life if they stole a piece of pizza and it was their third offense,” they said. “The California legal system is broken.”

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