A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel on Friday threw out the conviction of a teenage girl who prosecutors said played a key role in a 2005 Sacramento robbery-murder.
Sarah Weeden was 14 years old at the time of the Aug. 5, 2005, shooting death of Navnil Chand, who was 17. According to testimony at Weeden’s 2008 trial, she had agreed to meet Chand at Caymus Park for a date and directed him there by cellphone. When he arrived, a gunman identified as Sertice Melonson, then 23, waited to rob him. During the robbery, Melonson shot and killed Chand.
Jurors found Weeden guilty of first-degree murder as an aider and abettor to Melonson, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard sentenced her to 27 years to life in prison.
Local prosecutors are not sure if they will retry Weeden, and the state attorney general’s office did not respond immediately Friday on whether it plans to seek a rehearing with the full circuit.
“We are just delighted for Sarah and her family,” said Charles M. Bonneau Jr., the Sacramento attorney who handled Weeden’s appeal. “She was just a little girl when all this happened, and we’re convinced she will ultimately be vindicated and released.”
In an opinion issued Friday, the three-judge panel on a 2-1 vote granted Weeden a writ of habeas corpus on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Her lawyer was Michael G. Bowman, who is now a Sacramento Superior Court judge. Before he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jerry Brown, Bowman had a reputation as one of the best defense lawyers in town.
Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz’s opinion scored Bowman for not seeking a psychological evaluation on Weeden, to determine the effect of her youth on her mental state and whether she could form the intent to rob.
At trial, Bowman based his defense on a theory that Weeden did not know a robbery was going to take place, and he testified at her motion for a new trial that a psychological evaluation “would be inconsistent with the defense that I was putting forth.”
The California 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected Weeden’s plea to have the verdict reversed, as did the California Supreme Court and the federal judge, James K. Singleton Jr., who first considered her writ in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
Hurwitz wrote in his opinion: “Counsel cannot justify a failure to investigate simply by invoking strategy.” Bowman, he said, “could not have reasonably concluded that obtaining a psychological examination would conflict with his trial strategy without first knowing what such an examination would reveal.”
Weeden’s appellate lawyer said the evaluation could have been a trial game-changer.
“Whether she had the maturity to contemplate a robbery, understand what a robbery is, understand that a robbery involves force and may involve a gun, and may involve resistance by victims, that somebody may be hurt: For all those reasons, if she did not grasp all of that, then her involvement shouldn’t be subject to the felony murder rule, since she wasn’t present at the incident and didn’t act as an accomplice or know anything about a gun,” Bonneau said.
U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy of Montana, sitting by designation with the circuit, sided with Hurwitz. Appellate Judge Consuelo M. Callahan, who keeps her chambers in Sacramento, dissented from the majority.
Callahan noted in her dissent that Bowman is a former prosecutor himself who had been an attorney for 20 years at the time of Weeden’s trial and that he had worked at least 10 murder trials.
Bowman, who defended accused murderers several times afterward and won an acquittal in at least one of the cases, could not be reached for comment Friday.
One of the city’s top defense lawyers characterized Bowman as “a fantastic trial attorney” before he was elevated to the bench.
“He’s won several tough trials and won several homicide cases,” said Mike Wise, who himself has gained multiple acquittals of murder defendants. “I don’t know what the court found, but Mr. Bowman’s reputation as one of our best trial attorneys still stands.”
In her dissent, Callahan said “a reasonable attorney” in the Weeden case could have challenged the prosecution straight up on its evidence “as opposed to grasping for straws and claiming that his competent client somehow lacked the ability to form the requisite intent.”
Prosecutors, in their evidence against Weeden, presented 93 phone calls and voicemails from the three hours before the shooting in which she directed Chand, the victim, to Melonson, his killer. A friend who accompanied Chand also was injured in the shooting.
In a damning text message she sent to a friend three months after the fatal shooting, Weeden wrote: “I knew Sertice was going to rob them.” Melonson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Bonneau, the attorney on the appellate case, said he hopes that if prosecutors choose to retry Weeden when she is returned to Sacramento from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla that it will be in juvenile court rather than in the adult system that carries heavier penalties.
“She was never evaluated (by the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office),” Bonneau said. “They just filed directly in Superior Court because it was a murder case, period. Anything about her – her maturity, her age – never factored into it. No plea bargain was offered. The only possible result was acquittal or first-degree murder.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said Friday that his office will wait on the state attorney general’s next move before deciding on its own. Grippi did not preclude a retrial for Weeden in juvenile court.
“All options will be evaluated,” Grippi said.