BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A man sentenced to life without parole in the 1996 killing of a liquor store clerk during an attempted robbery will be released from prison after a Kern County judge on Friday ruled in his favor.
Christopher James Hearn, 47, was granted resentencing under changes to the state’s felony-murder rule. The law requires a person to actually commit or aid in a killing, or have the intent to kill, during the commission of a crime in order to be charged with murder.
The jury that convicted Hearn more than two decades ago found he was not the shooter — others were involved — and his participation in the crime was minimal but convicted him under the law that existed at the time, said Deputy Public Defender Cynda Bunton, Hearn’s attorney.
Back then, the felony-murder rule stated defendants could be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life terms in prison in cases where they weren’t the actual killer but participated in a dangerous felony, such as robbery or burglary, that resulted in death.
It was altered in 2019, and Hearn filed a petition to be resentenced.
“I thought the judge’s ruling was well thought out and consistent with the law and the spirit of the law,” Bunton said in an email.
She added, “Mr. Hearn and his family are very happy. He will go from a sentence of life without the possibility of parole to a determinate sentence, all of which he has already served.”
In response to the ruling, the District Attorney’s Office sent an email that said, in part, “Although the court found that Mr. Hearn had been shown to be a major participant, based on Mr. Hearn’s young age and the jury findings that he was not armed and did not enter the store, the court did not find that it had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
Hearn’s murder conviction will be reversed, and he will be resentenced on underlying charges of burglary, attempted robbery and conspiracy.
Resentencing is set for Dec. 14. Bunton said it’s unlikely he’ll be released that day because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has 10 business days from receiving the amended sentence to release him.
“I will, of course, try to shorten than time,” Bunton said.
Hearn was convicted of the April 9, 1996, slaying of a liquor store clerk in Ridgecrest. The clerk suffered two gunshot wounds to the head and one to his left arm, according to appellate court filings. A witness reported seeing three people inside the store wearing dark clothing, faces covered, sometime between 8:30 and 8:50 p.m.
Police contacted a woman, identified in documents as “Annette R.,” who admitted going to the store with Hearn and two women to rob the business. She said Hearn shot the clerk, according to the filings, but later said she was outside when the shooting happened.
Another witness testified Annette bragged about being the shooter, the filings say.