Neko Wilson wasn’t present when Gary and Sandra DeBartolo were brutally killed in their California home in 2009. Still, Fresno County prosecutors alleged he was culpable for their murders because he had helped plan a botched robbery. Wilson, walked out of prison in October 2018 — the first of hundreds of state prisoners who have benefited from a pair of criminal justice reform measures that revised the way California punishes unwitting accomplices to killings, the Los Angeles Times reports. At the time of Wilson's arrest, California law allowed for people to be charged with first-degree murder if they were involved in a felony that led to a killing, even if they hadn’t intended for anyone to be hurt and didn’t commit the violence. For years, the felony murder law was used to lock up entire groups of offenders for the violent acts of one or two among them — often for decades, sometimes for life.
According to a first-of-its-kind analysis by the Office of the State Public Defender, at least 602 people in California detention facilities had their prison sentences reduced between 2019 and 2022 as a result of the two laws. That erased an estimated 11,353 years from their combined terms and saved taxpayers between $94 million and $1.2 billion in prison costs. “This is really tangible — not only real impact on the individuals who were incarcerated under this sentence, but also their families and the rest of California,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, who sponsored one reform law and worked to ensure inmates were aware of the change after it passed. The two laws largely restricted the filing of felony murder and other manslaughter and attempted murder charges to people who actually commit or intend to commit a killing, or who are major participants in a related felony and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”