A new California law that took effect in January could lead to the release of 15 people convicted of murder in San Luis Obispo County.
Senate Bill 1437 amends the way felony murder is charged in what supporters see as a way of holding defendants accountable for their own actions instead of the actions of their accomplice.
According to San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, a total of 17 defendants have filed a petition for a new sentence under the law. Only two – Ted Cornelius and Edward Prokop – have been denied thus far.
Among those petitioning for a new sentence is Patrick Wollet, who was convicted of the 2007 murder of Joshua Houlgate.
“(It’s been) almost 11 and a half years, but almost every time we revisit this, it’s very emotional for us,” Houlgate’s mother, Tori, said.
Joshua Houlgate, who is remembered by his parents as a smart, funny man who fell in with the wrong crowd, was fatally shot at a mobile home in San Luis Obispo.
“Josh saw the gun, started to move to the sliding glass doors to get out, but it was too late,” Houlgate’s father, Laurence, said. “Chad shot him at that point.”
Chad Westbrook was later convicted of murder in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court alongside then 18-year-old Patrick Wollet, who reportedly beat Houlgate but did not pull the trigger.
“It used to be that if someone died in the commission of certain enumerated felonies, everyone responsible for that underlying felony was responsible for the murder,” Earl Conaway III, a defense attorney in San Luis Obispo, said.
Conaway doesn’t know the Houlgates, but he knows this situation well. His client, Gerardo Estrada, was sentenced to prison for the 1986 murder of Ronald Gow.
“He was involved in a residential burglary,” Conaway said. “His friend at the time committed a heinous act to an innocent victim, but Mr. Estrada was not responsible for his murder.”
But Dow said Friday that this law does not do justice by the victims and supports the release of “convicted murderers back out into the community.”
“It says these folks shouldn’t be culpable for the deaths that their actions contributed to,” Dow said.
He told a judge at a Wednesday hearing for Estrada’s release that the new law is altogether unconstitutional because it should have gone through a voter initiative process, not the legislature.
A judge in Northern California agreed, filing an order recently against a petitioner because he believes the law is unconstitutional.
While opponents call SB 1437 a slap in the face for victims, the Houlgate family disagrees.
“It would be justice,” Laurence Houlgate said of the prospect of Wollett’s release. “I feel justice would be served in that case. It’s certainly not served in cases where there’s no criminal intent.”
This surprising act of compassion comes from two grieving parents who said their pain does not justify an unfair sentence.
“It certainly wouldn’t bring closure to me to see him punished as if he were the murderer,” Laurence Houlgate said.
The complete list of San Luis Obispo County defendants who have filed a petition under the new law as of Friday include:
Cornelius, Ted Harold