BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A man serving life without parole for his involvement in the 1995 killing of a teenager who was beaten and buried in a pit he helped dig will have a hearing on whether his murder conviction should be vacated.
The 5th District Court of Appeal on Tuesday overturned a ruling by a Bakersfield judge who in 2019 dismissed Robert Lee Santos Jr.’s resentencing petition on the grounds that changes made to the state’s felony murder rule that resulted in the petition were unconstitutional.
Under the appellate court ruling, Santos will have a hearing in Bakersfield to make his argument as to why the court should vacate the conviction. A date had not been set.
Santos, now 47, had told authorities he didn’t commit the killing, and that a co-defendant fatally beat the teen with a tire iron while he sat in a car, according to an Associated Press article.
Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, however, said Santos was “actively involved in the vicious beating torture, and murder” and his conviction should stand.
“We will continue fighting to ensure convicted murderers and torturers like Robert Santos are not allowed to abuse the law to erase their convictions and be released,” Zimmer said. “Santos’s active involvement should disqualify his conviction from being disturbed, and we look forward to proving that in court.”
Santos is getting a chance to argue his case under changes made two years ago to the state’s felony murder rule.
Previously, defendants could be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life terms in prison in cases where they weren’t the actual killer but committed a dangerous felony such as robbery or burglary that resulted in the death of another person.
SB 1437, which became law in 2019 and applies retroactively, now 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. Otherwise they can only be prosecuted for the underlying crime, whether it’s robbery, burglary, carjacking or other serious crimes.
A number of prosecutors have argued SB 1437 is unconstitutional because it effectively changed Proposition 7 — adopted by voters during a statewide general election in 1978 — which increased the prison terms for first- and second-degree murder and established the felony murder rule.
The appellate court in Fresno has rejected that argument. It found SB 1437 doesn’t change the sentence for murder chosen by voters in Prop 7, but restricts it to those who actually killed or intended to kill.
“While the class of individuals standing convicted of murder may be reduced in light of Senate Bill No. 1437’s changes to the felony-murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, the legislation does not change or take away from the sentences those convicted of murder are subject to, which is the mandate of Proposition 7,” the court has said.
Santos was 21 when he and Michael Todd, then 15, taunted 16-year-old Jason Corbin about digging his own grave, the AP reported. The three were digging in a field the evening of June 13, 1995, to recover a gun Santos had buried.
Corbin laughed along with the other two, according to reports. His body was found two days later, and an autopsy showed he died from a skull fracture and had been severely beaten.
Two 15-year-old girls who knew the defendants and had been told to go to Corbin’s vehicle parked nearby told investigators they heard Santos and Todd taunt Corbin as they beat him, the AP said. One of the girls testified she heard Corbin moaning for 90 minutes.
Santos claimed he sat in a car while Todd beat Santos with a tire iron, according to the AP.
But when Santos directly appealed his conviction in 1999, an appellate court found there was “ample evidence” he participated in the killing. It said evidence showing Santos was the primary instigator was overwhelming.
The court said, “Santos tricked Jason into helping dig the grave; obtained the shovel; and threatened (the girls) numerous times. Even if Santos did not wield the tire iron or shovel, his role in the murder justifies the sentence.”
And despite a lack of eyewitness testimony, the court found the record supported a finding that Santos delivered some of the blows against Corbin, and that afterward he told people “we” killed him and that he, Santos, had “finished (Corbin) up with a shovel.”