New felony murder rule results in justice 16 years later

Emmitt Lewis and his attorney, Public Defender Niki Solis, share a laugh at the great news he’ll soon be free. In San Francisco, because of the late Jeff Adachi’s persuasive and charismatic advocacy for the budget to strongly defend the poor, public defenders don’t meet their clients 20 minutes before trial – with predictably disastrous outcomes; they can actually get to know their clients and defend them as aggressively as rich white men are defended.

Public Defender defense team wins the first SB 1437 release in San Francisco

by Valerie Ibarra

San Francisco – A man who was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for being an accomplice to a purse-snatching which resulted in a tragic accident, will soon be freed after serving 16 years in prison. Emmitt Lewis was sitting in the passenger seat of a car while the driver sped away from the scene of a robbery; the car hit and killed Scott Adsit as he loaded his work truck in the early morning hours of July 7, 2003.

Mr. Lewis was convicted under the felony murder rule, which allowed those present and in any way involved in the perpetration of a felony to be convicted of the murder of anyone who dies during the course of that felony – even when the death is entirely accidental. Mr. Lewis was convicted of aiding and abetting a robbery committed by Michael Wilson, moments before the pedestrian was struck and killed. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.

In 2018, The California State Legislature passed SB 1437, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. The revised law mandates that only those who are the actual killers (or “major participants” with a reckless indifference to human life) during a specified felony may be convicted of felony murder. After a contested hearing, Mr. Lewis, who was never identified as the robber and was serving a life sentence for sitting in the passenger seat, will be the first person to be released in San Francisco under this new law.

Due to legislative changes to the felony murder rule, the critical question in Mr. Lewis’s case was whether he was the driver and therefore responsible for the death of Mr. Adsit. Mr. Lewis sustained a head injury in the crash and DNA analysis proved Mr. Lewis’s blood was on the passenger-side dashboard and headliner of the vehicle. The police also found one of Mr. Lewis’s shoes wedged into the floorboard of the front passenger seat of the car at the crash scene. When police arrived at the scene of the accident, Mr. Lewis had exited the vehicle and was lying a few feet away from the passenger side door and Mr. Wilson was found leaning halfway out of the driver side window. A kinematics expert in accident reconstruction, Chris Kauderer, who has previously been hired by the SF District Attorney to testify on behalf of prosecutions, testified that all of the physical and forensic evidence indicated Mr. Lewis was the passenger.

Only one piece of evidence supported the District Attorney’s position that Mr. Lewis was the driver: the circumstantial evidence of a single eyewitness who identified Mr. Lewis’s co-defendant, Michael Wilson, as the robber and stated Mr. Wilson had come out of the passenger side of the vehicle. Another eyewitness had a contradicting account that placed Mr. Wilson as the driver. This made the physical evidence in the case crucial to Mr. Lewis’s release.

“This man has been in prison for 16 years for being a passenger in a car.”

Mr. Lewis was represented by a team of attorneys, which included his original public defender, Niki Solis, and Kristin Hucek, of Keker Van Nest & Peters LLP. “Without co-counsel and the pro bono support for an expert witness provided by Keker, Van Nest & Peters, this may not have been possible.

“Not everyone who is suffering under the old felony murder rule can afford this type of representation. In fact, most cannot. This case underscores the need for funding and resources to defender offices so we can realize the justice this new law provides,” Solis said.

After a two-day hearing and expert testimony, the original trial judge, Honorable John Stewart, announced his ruling on Aug. 12, 2019. He found that the SF District Attorney’s Office did not prove Mr. Lewis to be the driver beyond a reasonable doubt.

Solis, a 24-year veteran of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, expressed her condolences to Mr. Adsit’s family, the man who tragically died in the accident. “My heart goes out to the family of Mr. Adsit, who was the victim of this tragic accident. I cannot imagine the grief and loss.”

“Mr. Lewis going away for life for neither committing the robbery nor driving the get-away vehicle that struck Mr. Adsit, was the once harsh reality of the felony murder rule,” Solis said. “We are relieved that justice was served, even if it came after Mr. Lewis spent 16 years behind bars.”

Kristin Hucek said, “I vividly remember first learning about the felony murder rule in law school and being struck by how unjust it seemed when applied to individuals like Mr. Lewis. The California Legislature made such an important decision last year when it blunted the harshness of the felony murder rule and gave individuals like Mr. Lewis the opportunity to benefit from it.”

Solis said, “The felony murder rule used to cast a wide net when pursuing convictions, without requiring prosecutors to look more closely at the evidence in each case as it pertained to individual responsibility. This case highlights the fairness of the reforms. This man has been in prison for 16 years for being a passenger in a car.”

Several of Lewis’s family members were in court to hear the judge’s decision. When the announcement was made, they were quietly tearful and joyous to learn that Mr. Lewis will finally go free.

A resentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 19 to determine when Mr. Lewis will be released.

The mission of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office is to protect and defend the rights of our indigent clients, through effective, vigorous, compassionate and creative legal advocacy. Valerie Ibarra, public information officer for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, can be reached at Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org.