A defendant who spent nine years behind bars was released Thursday from the Fresno County Jail for a double murder he didn’t do.
In 2009, Neko Wilson, then 27, sat in his pickup truck while his partners decided to rob a Kerman home of high-grade marijuana.
Then something terrible happened. Sandra and Gary De Bartolo were murdered when their throats were slashed on the morning of July 22, 2009, inside their El Mar Avenue home near Kerman High School.
Though Wilson never went inside the De Bartolo home, he was charged with the double murder anyway. The case never went to trial, and he languished in the county jail ever since.
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On Thursday, Judge John Vogt granted a prosecution motion to dismiss the two murder charges. Instead. Wilson, now 36, pleaded guilty to two counts of robbery.
He was released on his own recognizance Thursday and will be sentenced in November to nine years in prison. Because of time served in the Fresno County Jail, Vogt ordered Wilson’s immediate release from custody.
Wilson was charged with murder under California’s felony murder-rule which generally says a defendant can be held criminally liable if a death occurs during a felony, like a burglary or robbery — even if the person wasn’t present during the killing.
On Thursday, he became the first defendant to benefit from a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that limits the use of the long-held felony murder rule.
On Sept 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1437. In doing so, the governor created a pathway for defendants like Wilson to not face murder charges and gave hundreds of other inmates already convicted of murder under the old felony-murder rule the opportunity to be re-sentenced.
For decades, prosecutors have been able to hold accomplices responsible for murders that occur during the commission of a felony. Under the new law, a defendant can only be convicted of murder if he or she “was the actual killer” or a major participant who “aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer.”
Supporters of the bill have argued that California’s felony murder rule is both too broad, and predominantly used against people of color, women and young people. Wilson is black.
Kate Chatfield, policy director for Re:Store Justice, said the law, which was first established in the 1850s needed to be changed.
Re:Store Justice, an advocacy group was instrumental in getting the new law passed, spending three years researching the law, doing surveys for the bill and and collecting data, Chatfield said..
Chatfield, who is also an adjunct law professor at the University of San Francisco, credited Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Republican State Senator John Anderson, for sponsoring the bill.
Chatfield said Wilson is a prime candidate to be released from jail because “he didn’t kill the victims or intend for them to be killed.”
Sandra De Bartolo, a secretary at Kerman High School, and Gary De Bartolo, who owned an auto glass repair business, were married 42 years.
Court records say Wilson was one of six defendants charged in connection with the double killing.
Jose Reyes, Chris Bernard Butler, and Andrew DaWayne Jones, are in prison after accepting plea deals. In November 2016, Dawn Singh was sentenced to life in prison without parole after a jury convicted her of the double killings.
Leroy Johnson trial’s is pending. He could get the death penalty if convicted.
Court records said the De Bartolos grew high-grade marijuana in their home.
Testimony in Singh’s trial revealed that only Johnson and Reyes went inside the home. Singh, however, played a key role in the crime, the prosecution contended, because Butler told law enforcement that when Singh pulled up to the De Bartolo home, she saw the front door open and said: “It’s perfect. Go in.”
During Singh’s trial, jurors heard Gary De Bartolo’s 911 call in which he tells police dispatch that his wife has been murdered. He is then killed while making the call.
At the time of the killings, the De Bartolo home was under surveillance by Kerman police, the Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol after law enforcement received a tip that an Asian gang was planning to rob the couple of their marijuana.
After the killings, Singh led the authorities on a high-speed chase from Kerman to Fresno. During the pursuit she drove more than 130 mph, talked on her cell phone and passed through several stop signs and stoplights before crashing into a car outside a Fresno wrecking yard at Jensen Avenue and Golden State Boulevard.
Wilson was not in Singh’s getaway car. He had driven his pickup to the De Bartolo neighborhood before deciding against the robbery, said San Francisco attorney Jacque Wilson, who represented his brother in court.
Jacque Wilson and more than a dozen family and friends also attended Thursday’s hearing.
Neko Wilson said little Thursday, other than to announce he was guilty of two robberies. He also agreed to give up his appellate rights.
In making a motion to to dismiss the charges, prosecutor William Lacy told Judge John Vogt that Wilson planned and orchestrated the armed robberies and had driven Reyes from the crime scene. But Wilson never entered the house nor intended to commit the two murders, Lacy told the judge.
After the hearing, Lacy said he had no opinion about Gov. Brown revising the felony-murder rule, other than it might diminish public safety because it will allow people convicted of murder to petition the court to be re-sentenced.
“We don’t make the law,” he told reporters. “We follow the law.”
Jacque Wilson said his brother thanked him for getting his freedom and said he was looking forward to going home.
“My brother is not a killer,” Jacque Wilson said.
Jacque Wilson also responded to Lacy’s public safety remarks, saying the new law will bring justice and save the public money because less defendants will be incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit.
“What happened to the De Bartolos was tragic,” Jacque Willson said.
“But my family also has suffered,” he said, noting that his brother was incarcerated for nine years for two murders he never committed. He thanked Gov. Brown, senators Skinner and Anderson, Re:Store Justice, and everyone who played a role in getting the felony-murder rule revised.
He said SB 1437 will provide hope for other families. “It’s sad what happened in this case. I wish it could be undone,” Jacque Wilson said.
But in the end, Jacque Wilson said his brother was held accountable: “I believe justice has been served.”