DA responds to Lassen News’ request for McElrath information

Melyssa Rios, Lassen County District Attorney

Lassen County District Attorney Melyssa Rios responded to Lassen News’ request for information regarding the resentencing petition filed by Joanna McElrath. Here is her statement regarding the changes in the law that may allow a different sentence for McElrath. Here is her statement.

To clarify the law changes to murder
Prior to 2019, everyone involved in certain enumerated felonies during which someone other than a co-defendant died, would be liable for the murder of that individual.  The classic example is A, B, and C go to a convenient store. A stays out in the car while B and C go in to rob the place.  C ends up shooting and killing the clerk (without prior knowledge of either A or B).  The plan was to rob, not kill anyone.  Under the old law, all three of the them could be convicted of the murder because it was a death that occurred during the commission of a robbery, which is an specific enumerated felony for felony/murder.

In 2019, the law changed so that now, under that same scenario, each of the three could only be charged and convicted based on their respective roles.  A would only be aiding/abetting a robbery, B – robbery, and C would be the only one charged with murder. This, of course, is a rudimentary example, but hopefully helpful for the reader to understand the law change.

So now, in order for another participant to be liable for the murder he/she has to either 1) be the actual killer, or 2) with intent to kill, aided/abetted, induced, solicited or requested the actual killer, or 3) a major participant in the underlying felony and act with reckless indifference to human life.

And of course, the legislature wrote this to apply retroactively so now anyone serving a sentence for murder who was not the “actual killer” who believes they could not be charged with murder based on the law change, can petition to have their murder conviction set aside and be sentenced only for the felony(ies) they did commit.  The California courts are also applying these changes to attempted murder as well, although that was not the original legislative intent.

Convicted murderers Joseph Perry Shelton, Joanna Lynne McElrath, and Gabriel Dylan Haley have all petitioned for resentencing under the new law.

Defendant Shelton’s petition was ultimately denied after over a year of litigation in the Mendocino County Superior Court.  That court found that he in fact was a “major participant in the underlying felonies and acted with reckless indifference to human life” in the deaths of Kevin Thorpe and Laura Craig.

Defendant McElrath has filed a petition, to which I opposed, and she was granted a prima facie review. Her position, as it appears from her petition, was that because she was not the actual killer of Robert McElrath, that her murder conviction should be set aside and she be resentenced for the crimes she believes she did commit.  I am preparing a more extensive analysis for the court in opposition to the petition, both counsel were provided the court file, and that is on for status of briefing in May. It is of note that upon her guilty plea in 2014, she waived her appellate rights.  On this issue, California courts have held that a petition for resentencing under the new law scheme is not the same as an appeal and therefore a defendant who waived future appellate rights did not also thereby waive future law changes.

Defendant Haley filed a petition in the Lassen Superior Court, in the death of William Timms, that was initially denied on its face, but that denial is being reviewed and may possibly come back for a hearing.

Our office has opposed and will continue to oppose the petitions as filed by these defendants as it is our position that they are not eligible for relief.