Court of Appeal Rejects Equal Protection Challenge to Mandatory Life Sentence for Killing Officer

(This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2005 edition of The Metropolitan News, a daily newspaper in Los Angeles featuring articles on law and the courts.)

The First District Court of Appeal has upheld a voter-approved measure mandating a life sentence without parole for second degree murder of a peace officer under specified circumstances.

Div. One Friday affirmed Chad Rhodes’ conviction and sentence for the 1999 shooting death of Officer James Williams Jr. Williams, a rookie member of the Oakland Police Department, was shot while standing beneath an overpass on Interstate 580.

Williams, 41, was on the freeway’s shoulder with two other officers and an evidence technician searching for a weapon that had been tossed from a car during a high-speed chase. Police said Rhodes, then 19, fired six to eight shots from an AK-47.

Charged with capital murder in the death of Williams and with attempted murder and two counts of assault with a firearm against the others, Rhodes entered a negotiated plea—after 53 days of trial—to a lesser charge of second degree murder and one count of assault with a firearm.

Alameda Superior Court Judge Joseph Hurley sentenced Rhodes to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for the murder. Proposition 222, approved by 77 percent of the electorate in 1998, provides that second degree murder of a peace officer, whom the defendant knew or should have known was performing official duties, is punishable by that sentence if the defendant specifically intended to kill the officer or cause great bodily injury, or used a firearm or other dangerous weapon.

On appeal, the defense argued that Proposition 222 is unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection clauses. It was contended that the statute arbitrarily punishes the murder of a peace officer without premeditation more heavily than the premeditated or recidivist murder of another victim.

Matthew Zwerling and Richard Such of the First District Appellate Project, representing Rhodes, noted that the penalty for first degree murder without aggravating circumstances is 25 years to life in prison, and that a defendant who is convicted of a recidivist second degree murder is subject to a life-without-parole sentence but is allowed to present evidence of mitigating circumstances.

But Justice Douglas E. Swager, writing for the court, said the measure was constitutional.

“We find that defendant has failed to demonstrate that two similarly situated groups have been treated in an unequal manner by the sentencing laws,” the justice wrote. “His claim of denial of equal protection is based upon the imposition of different levels of punishment upon defendants convicted of distinctly classified homicides.”

Whether the killing of a peace officer without premeditation is more serious than the premeditated killing of a another victim in the absence of special circumstances is a question for the Legislature, not the courts, to answer. It is, he added, reasonable for the Legislature to determine that “the imposition of severe punishment upon offenders who kill or injure peace officers serves to promote the societal interest of protecting peace officers engaged in the performance of their duties.”

There is, the justice went on to say, also a rational basis for mandating the life-without-parole sentence in Proposition 222, in contrast with Penal Code Sec. 190.05, which permits a trial on mitigating circumstances where the prosecution seeks a life-without-parole sentence for second degree murder based on a defendant’s prior murder conviction.

“While defendant claims that ‘one crime cannot be considered substantially more serious than the other,’ the crimes have appreciably different elements and we cannot intrude upon the exclusive power of the legislative branch to define crimes and fix penalties,” Swager wrote.

The justice also rejected the argument that the sentence constituted cruel or unusual punishment.

“With an assault rifle defendant opened fire from an overpass at a group of police officers and evidence technicians engaged in the entirely non-threatening task of collecting evidence on the freeway below him,” the jurist wrote. “The unprovoked shooting was at best criminally negligent, or at worst, committed with the sinister objective of killing a police officer.  Defendant acted on his own, apparently without encouragement or assistance from anyone else.  The impact of the indiscriminate shooting was to leave one officer dead and another wounded.”

The case is People v. Rhodes, A102776.