Two men who have served more than 30 years in prison for robbing and killing an elderly man in Banning are challenging their convictions under a 3-year-old law that redefines a person’s culpability for murder.
David Earl Walker, 51, and Brandon Tyrone Collins, 52, were both convicted in January 1992 of first-degree murder and robbery for the July 3, 1991, death of 77-year-old Wilbur Hutchens. They each were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
However, under Senate Bill 1437, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine of the felony murder rule has been eliminated. Now, to be convicted of murder, a perpetrator must have acted with malice aforethought that cannot be be based solely on participation in an underlying crime.
Additionally, SB 1437 provides that a person is liable for murder only if he was the actual killer, a major participant in the underlying crime and acted with reckless indifference toward human life, intended to kill the victim or aided and/or abetted the actual killer in the commission of first-degree murder.
The law creates a procedure for resentencing killers who challenge their convictions under SB 1437. Collins and Walker are among hundreds of convicted murderers who have petitioned the court for resentencing since the law took effect.
“I never intended to kill anybody. I’ve maintained my innocence since day one,” Walker said in a telephone interview from California State Prison in Lancaster, where he has been incarcerated for the past eight years. In the three decades he has been locked up, Walker said he has served stints at some of the most brutal prisons in the state, including Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Folsom.
Collins’ and Walker’s SB 1437 petitions initially were denied by a Riverside County Superior Court judge in 2019, but that decision was reversed on appeal. Now, an evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 4 in the same courthouse.
No intention to kill
In their petitions filed with the court, Collins and Walker each maintain they were not the actual killer and had no intention to kill Hutchens when they robbed him in 1991.
“The jury did not find me to have reckless indifference toward human life, nor that I had intent to kill or was the actual killer,” Walker said. “The only thing they found me guilty of was as an aider and abettor and accessory to the homicide. I always maintained I was there.”
Attorney Mark Cantrell, who represents Collins, said his client admits to taking Hutchens’ money, but denies killing him or acting with “reckless indifference toward human life.”
“Nobody’s claiming this was good behavior, and (Collins) certainly is guilty of one or more crimes, but is he guilty of murder? That’s the real issue,” Cantrell said in a telephone interview.
If the court finds in favor of Collins, it would likely mean he would be resentenced for the robbery, granted credit for time served, and be released from prison. “It would mean that he’s served all of his time,” Cantrell said.
The same likely would apply for Walker.
Riverside County prosecutors maintain that Collins and Walker do, in fact, qualify for murder under current law.
Three witnesses told authorities Collins and Walker were the ones who robbed Hutchens and were present when the crimes occurred. The witnesses, along with Collins and Walker, were among 15 to 20 people standing outside drinking and listening to music when Hutchens pulled up in his car, asking if a woman he was friends with was home.
Collins approached from the driver-side window and demanded money from Hutchens. When Hutchens turned on the engine to try to drive off, Collins reached inside, turned the ignition off, pulled the keys out of the ignition and threw them into the street. Walker reached in and put the car in “park.”
Collins punched Hutchens in the face and head, yanked him out the vehicle and pulled two wallets from his rear pocket as Walker held him up by the arms. Collins pulled cash from the wallets before discarding them in the street and telling Walker to let Hutchens go. Walker then dropped Hutchens, whose head struck some concrete.
After Collins and Walker fled, one of the witnesses went to check on Hutchens and later told authorities Hutchens was “making this little gurgling sound, and his eyes were all back in his head. He didn’t say anything, just made a little sound,” court records show.
Witnesses also told investigators they heard Collins and Walker say they were going to rob somebody prior to the encounter. One witness said she heard Collins say “he was going to get some money from somebody, (even) if it had to be his mother,” according to a brief filed in court by prosecutors.
Police and paramedics arrived at the scene to find Hutchens, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 149 pounds, lying in a pool of blood in the street, next to his car. He died the next day.
The facts, according to prosecutors, show that both Collins and Walker not only acted with reckless disregard toward human life, but both were major participants in Hutchens’ death.
“Here, Collins’s conduct and Walker’s conduct were each a substantial factor in the death,” according to the prosecution’s brief, filed Dec. 6 in Riverside County Superior Court.
Hundreds of petitions filed
Since SB 1437 took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, hundreds of convicted murderers have petitioned the courts for evidentiary hearings to determine if they still qualify for murder under the change in law.
About 400 petitions have been filed in Riverside County Superior Court. The majority of them have been denied, but about 100 petitions are still pending review, district attorney spokesman John Hall said. He said petitions continue to pour into the court weekly.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said his office has reviewed nearly 350 petitions. Los Angeles and Orange counties could not immediately provide information on the number of petitions filed in their counties since SB 1437 took effect.
The number of SB 1437 petitions filed in Riverside County prompted the county to contract with outside attorneys solely to handle them, Public Defender Steve Harmon said. Harmon said his office would have had to hire additional staff just to handle the petitions, so the county decided it would be more efficient to contract for that specific service.
“Those (petitions) are finite, so it doesn’t make sense for the county to hire new employees to handle those cases, which can be done in a year or two or three,” Harmon said.
In Orange County, 403 petitions have been filed since the law took effect, with 219 still pending and 184 closed, according to district attorney spokeswoman Kimerly Edds.
Numbers for Los Angeles County were not immediately available.
For Walker and Collins, the judge will ultimately decide their culpability in the death of Wilbur Hutchens and whether or not they have paid their debt to society and should go free.
Walker said he was 19 years old when he entered prison in 1992, illiterate and the father of a toddler daughter, who he said is now 33 years old. He said he learned to read and write in prison, and now writes short stories and studies law.
Now battling lung cancer, he said he feels remorse for what happened more than 30 years ago, but believes he has paid the price for his crimes.
“I live with this every day. The victim is still in my mind 24 hours a day,” Walker said. “I’m a man who’s been in training for 31 years. I don’t take nothing for granted. Life is serious. I lost a lot.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version to include the numbers of SB 1437 petitions filed in Orange County Superior Court since the law took effect.
Source: Orange County Register