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"Chiu" Petition Denials Get New Life

In re Lopez Docket: S258912, Opinion Date: April 3, 2023. In 2005, a jury convicted Lopez and three others of Gomez’s first-degree premeditated murder and found true the gang-murder special circumstance and the criminal street gang sentencing enhancement. Lopez was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Court of Appeal affirmed. Lopez sought habeas relief, alleging his jury had been instructed on the natural and probable consequences theory of aiding and abetting first-degree murder, found invalid in the California Supreme Court's 2014 "Chiu" decision. In 2019, the Court of Appeal held that the Chiu error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt based on the gang-murder special circumstance, which required the jury to find that an aider and abettor acted with intent to kill, and the “overwhelming” evidence against Lopez generally. The court discounted the prosecutor’s discussion of the natural and probable consequences theory in his closing argument and found a jury note referencing that theory inconsequential under the circumstances. The California Supreme Court reversed. The gang-murder special circumstance here does not necessarily render the Chiu error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt but indications that the jury may have relied on an invalid theory, such as a prosecutor’s closing argument or a jury note, do not preclude a finding of harmlessness. The court must rigorously review the evidence to determine whether any rational juror who found the defendant guilty based on an invalid theory and made the factual findings reflected in the verdict, would necessarily have found the defendant guilty based on a valid theory.

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