Crime - Sacto 911

He’s on trial in a murder but didn’t pull the trigger. Could new California law avert a life term?

Arraignment of Elijah Johnson accused of the murder of father and two sons in South Sacramento

Elijah Johnson is arraigned at the Sacramento County Main Jail on murder of Thanh Le, 56, and sons Dong Le, 32, and Tien Le, 21 in south Sacramento County.
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Elijah Johnson is arraigned at the Sacramento County Main Jail on murder of Thanh Le, 56, and sons Dong Le, 32, and Tien Le, 21 in south Sacramento County.

It began as a robbery between drug dealers. It turned into an early morning massacre that left three men dead.

In coming months, the case may become a test of a controversial law that bars felony murder charges for some accomplices to killings, and the continuation of a battle between Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown over how tough the state should be on crime.

Prosecutors say in April 2016, Elijah Johnson was recruited by his then-girlfriend and his co-defendant David Nguyen to steal $30,000 in cash stashed at the family home of Nguyen’s marijuana-dealing partner Dong Le. Then the shooting started.

Elijah Johnson had no prior criminal record and didn’t fire the fatal shots – Sacramento County District Attorney’s prosecutors alleged at trial that Nguyen was the triggerman with the deadly plan to rob his former friend.

But now, both Johnson, 24, and Nguyen, 26, face charges of murder and robbery and a lifetime in prison without parole if convicted. Trial in Sacramento Superior Court has ended. Jurors began their deliberations just before noon Wednesday.

And the woman who considers Johnson a son is convinced prosecutors should not try him for murder.

“We’re hopeful ... Elijah will be able to come home and that he’s found not guilty,” Jamilia Land said Tuesday outside Sacramento County Courthouse in downtown Sacramento as attorneys were heading back to the courtroom to deliver closing arguments in the case.

Changes in murder rule

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, Senate Bill 1437 became law Sunday. Under California’s felony murder rule, a person who commits or attempts to commit a serious felony in which a death occurs is liable for murder.

But the newly signed law, authored by state Sens. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, reduces prosecutors’ ability to use the rule. Instead, a person can be convicted of felony murder only if they directly assisted with the homicide or if they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

If a person did not intend to kill but acted recklessly, prosecutors may still charge – and a jury can convict – that person with first degree murder.

The new law also allows potentially hundreds of inmates now imprisoned on felony murder charges to seek resentencing.

Land hopes the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, could save Johnson from a lifetime behind bars even as county district attorneys have vowed to fight the legislation in court.

Land has been a vocal advocate for changes to California’s felony murder law, speaking at state Capitol rallies, meeting with criminal justice advocates and buttonholing local prosecutors in the corridors of the Sacramento County Courthouse.

The morning Johnson’s case was assigned for trial, Land seethed. She was frustrated with prosecutors who said they planned to go forward with the case even if Gov. Brown signed the felony murder legislation.

“This is a tragic situation and we can’t ignore the fact that three people lost their lives because of the commission of a home robbery,” Land would later say. “We can’t ignore that he was a participant (but) Elijah didn’t do it. He didn’t shoot or kill anyone.”

Prosecutors proceed

Deputy homicide prosecutor Jeff Hightower was just as clear before trial began. Regardless of whether SB 1437 became law, “the DA’s office intends to proceed as charged.”

Sacramento County prosecutors argued they had evidence and the felony murder rule on their side.

The brutal events unfolded in south Sacramento in April 2016. Dong Le was 32. He celebrated his little brother Tien Le’s 21st birthday the night before. Both were shot dead in their beds just after sunrise at point blank range. Their 56-year-old father, Thanh Le, was shot three times in the back as he and his wife, Be Vo, fled in terror from their home. She ducked the lethal rounds by hiding behind parked cars.

Johnson was armed, a .40-caliber handgun supplied by Nguyen tucked into his waistband, prosecutors said. He broke into the Le house with Nguyen, stayed inside the home when the shooting started, fled only as the elder Le was gunned down as he and his wife ran from their home.

For weeks, Johnson sat silently in a charcoal gray suit as Hightower laid out the evidence prosecutors said tied Johnson and Nguyen to the home invasion robbery and murders.

Johnson took the witness stand in his own defense, offering the hours of detailed testimony that his attorney Olaf Hedberg said would prove he should be found not guilty of murder.

Johnson testified he helped Nguyen because he feared him. He didn’t run, he said, because he was frozen in place by the sudden violence. He said he didn’t help the Le men because he thought if he did, he’d be next one to die.

‘This wasn’t supposed to happen’

“I was terrified. This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Johnson testified at trial in September. “I was terrified that if I tried to help them that I’d be the next victim … It was the most belligerent, terrifying thing in my whole life. I now just witnessed three men die. I had no words for it. I was scared for my own life. I pray for them. This family did not deserve this.”

The murder trial exposed a web of relationships including the one between Johnson, his then-girlfriend Amanda Tucker and a new friend of Tucker’s, Tayler Coately: The three were holed up in a room at a Super 8 motel on El Camino Avenue the night the alleged home invasion plot was hatched.

Prosecutors say Nguyen called Tucker that night with his plan to take the $30,000 cash from Le. But he needed a place to lie low, and he needed a crew.

Johnson didn’t want to do the job when Tucker’s phone rang but knew that cash, food and a roof weren’t always a given, he testified. He was abandoned by his parents at age 11 and lived for a time in the Sacramento Children’s Receiving Home. He’d couch-surfed with school friends and relatives and been in foster care.

Johnson testified that he didn’t remember Tucker talking about a robbery, but said Nguyen asked him if he wanted to make some money. Johnson didn’t think he had a choice. Nguyen had fronted him marijuana to sell and Johnson owed him money. He was ducking Nguyen’s phone calls. He said he knew the word about Nguyen.

“The man collected his debts,” Johnson testified.

Tucker drove. Coately was the lookout. Johnson would go inside with Nguyen. Nguyen revealed pairs of gloves during the drive to the early morning job. Even then, Johnson recalled from the witness stand, “I thought we were going to take some plants.”

Nguyen then showed off the guns - a .45 caliber and a .40 caliber, Johnson said.

Inside the Le home, shouts, then gunshots erupted. Johnson pistol-whipped one of the men inside, prosecutors said, a charge Johnson denied on the stand. Nguyen shot one of the men in a bedroom, said prosecutors. A second was shot dead in another bedroom. Prosecutors said Nguyen fired those shots from the gun he took back from Johnson after his firearm jammed.

The final cluster of shots felled Thanh Le just outside the family’s front door as his wife ducked for her life.

Nguyen and crew grabbed the money and sped away for the Super 8. By the time they returned to their room, the slayings were all over the morning newscasts.

Two plea deals

Nguyen, Johnson, Tucker and Coately were arrested within days of the Le murders. Tucker, now 21, and Coately, who was 17 when she was arrested, took deals last year in the case. Both testified for prosecutors to escape the murder charges against Johnson and Nguyen and will serve seven-year prison sentences for robbery at the end of the trial.

Land has said Johnson should have been offered a deal similar to Coatley and Tucker’s.

“The deals that were made didn’t make sense to me,” Land said. “He didn’t bring the gun. He wasn’t the orchestrator. Why would you give Tayler a deal and not offer the same to Elijah? Why is it that he’s being held with such major accountability?”

Land said she took in Johnson for two years in his teens after seeing him and friends outside a Natomas Walmart and learning of the conditions he lived under in foster care.

Johnson was in foster care when he first met Land outside the Walmart. He asked her if he could use a phone to call his foster parent, he said.

Five years later, Land calls Johnson her son and testified on his behalf at trial. She was one of several character witnesses Herberg called to testify for him before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard.

“I love him with everything inside me,” Land testified. “He is my son.”

Land also has ties to another high-profile Sacramento case.

A friend of the family of Stephon Clark, whose death in March at the hands of Sacramento police roiled the community, Land spoke forcefully at a downtown rally in the days after Clark was killed. Land spoke of Clark brother Stevante’s anguish in calling for increased mental health services to counter the steep toll of “living in communities that are like war zones.” She has since spoken out frequently in support of criminal justice reforms.

In testimony, Land sparred with Hightower from the witness stand.

“It pains me to know that three people have lost their lives,” Land testified. “But it needs to be told that the district attorney has disproportionately applied the law in this case. I’m asking that he be adequately punished for his crime.”

“You have an agenda for this case and part of that agenda is changing the law,” Hightower said.

Conflict over new law

The new law remains a contentious issue.

Criminal justice reform groups including Re:store Justice, a sponsor of SB 1437, say the rule is historically weighed against young people, women and people of color and say lifelong and expensive prison commitments are meted out to “people who never killed anyone, nor intended that a death occur.”

Prosecutors who gathered in Sacramento in September – members of the California District Attorneys Association, which strongly opposed SB 1437 – warned of the dire consequences ahead for public safety.

Schubert, the Sacramento County DA, all but assured a court fight if Brown signed SB 1437.

“The law is the law right now. The fact of the matter is that the felony murder rule exists,” Schubert said in the days before trial. “If the governor signs it, we intend to challenge it.”

After Brown signed the bill, a tweet posted by the Los Angeles County Association of Deputy District Attorneys was more blunt: “Legislature and Governor to crime victims: Drop Dead.”

But the state’s felony murder rule remains law for now.

With the trial in the fatal shootings ended and the verdict coming, Land is now focused not on the big picture, but on the fate of the single life of Elijah Johnson.

“Don’t take away his life, the ability to do something for his family and change the very system he was impacted by,” Land said this week. “Allow him to be able to pay his debt to society.”

The Bee’s Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.

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