Calif. inmate first to be released under new state murder law
The inmate convicted of aiding and abetting a first-degree murder was the first of an estimated 800 eligible for re-sentencing
By Nate Gartrell
East Bay Times
MARTINEZ, Calif. — Outside of the Contra Costa County jail Friday afternoon, 34-year-old Adnan Khan took his first steps as a free man since 2003. And the reverberations will be felt all over the state.
Khan, convicted of aiding and abetting a first-degree murder in 2004 under California’s now-defunct felony murder law, was the first of an estimated 800 prisoners eligible for re-sentencing under SB 1437, a new state law that fundamentally changes the way murders can be prosecuted. The law nullifies a legal theory that allowed accomplices to be prosecuted for murder when someone is killed during the commission of another felony.
“I want people to know that there are a lot more men and women inside that are just like me and are ready to come out here and taste the clean air,” Khan said, minutes after he was released from jail per a judge’s order Friday.
Khan was 19 and homeless in 2003 when arrested and charged with first-degree murder after he and three others plotted to rob their marijuana dealer, Kevin Leonard McNut, in Antioch. During the robbery, one of Khan’s accomplices, Rick Asheed Page, stabbed McNut to death in a rage apparently induced by mental illness.
Though Khan was not the killer, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Page took a plea deal and received a 15-years-to-life sentence.
Khan became a poster boy for why the felony murder law should be overturned, his attorney Kate Chatfield said after Friday’s hearing. Chatfield is the policy director for Restore Justice California, a nonprofit co-founded by Khan that advocates for restorative justice and other progressive reforms in the courts system.
“Mr. Khan was the inspiration for SB 1437,” said Kate Chatfield. “His story moved us so much and it moved the Legislature, and then we started this process of examining the felony murder rule.”
Before a packed courtroom Friday morning, Judge Laurel Brady approved Chatfield’s motion to overturn Khan’s murder conviction and re-sentence him to three years for the robbery charge. She declined to put Khan on probation, saying he “more than served” his sentence during the 16 years he stayed in state prison.
After court, there was a celebratory atmosphere as a large group of Khan’s loved ones and supporters hugged each other, shed tears, and then gathered at the Martinez Detention Facility to await his release.
“We’re obviously excited. I was hoping for this outcome, but just how things have been the last 16 years, I was prepared for the worst scenario,” Khan’s sister Sahresh Khan said Friday.
Also in the courtroom’s gallery Friday was Paul Graves, the prosecutor in Adnan Khan’s case. Graves, who opposed current District Attorney Diana Becton in last year’s election, did not appear on behalf of the state, though. That job went to Venus Johnson, who is Becton’s third in command.
Johnson did not oppose the defense motion, saying she had reviewed it and agreed. So did Judge Brady, and the entire hearing lasted less than 10 minutes. Hours later, Khan emerged from the front door of the Martinez Detention Facility and was almost immediately swarmed by a group of reporters.
“I’m going to Great America, Six Flags,” he joked, later adding that his immediate plans were to grab a bite to eat. “As long as it’s not peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches.”
Pinning down the number of cases eligible for lesser sentencing is difficult. Chatfield estimated there were as many as 800 in California prisons. The Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office reports it has been notified by the California Department of Corrections of about 600 murder inmates who may be eligible for relief under SB 1437, but that’s before cases are weeded out where evidence shows the offender directly participated in a killing. The office expects to file around 100 petitions by the time it’s sorted though everything.
Chatfield said her group is visiting all state prisons to educate inmates about the new law.
When Khan was arrested after McNut’s death, he admitted his participation in the robbery and that his role was to “rough him up” and take the marijuana. He said he didn’t know that Page or any of the robbers were armed until after the stabbing. Two other accomplices to the robbery testified against Khan during trial and were not charged.
Khan did not shy away from that fact, but always maintained that the murder was not planned. His attorney called it a spontaneous act by Page.
“I did commit a robbery. … I feel like I did deserve a punishment for my actions,” Khan said Friday.
Page remains incarcerated at the prison medical facility in Stockton, and is still serving his sentence. In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Khan’s sentence to 15 years to life, making him eligible for parole.
“Even from prison, I’ve always expected this wrong to be righted. I’ve always had faith in the fact that somehow this was going to turn out how it turned out today,” said Shadeed Wallace-Stepter, whose own sentence was commuted in an assault case. Wallace-Stepter served time in prison with Khan, and the two are set to be roommates in a transformational home in Oakland.
“(Khan) should have been out,” Wallace-Stepter said Friday. “If you know his story, and you know why he’s been in prison, he should have never come to prison for this amount of time. He’s always struck me as somebody, being in prison with him, that ‘he shouldn’t be here.’ “
After Friday’s hearing, Becton released a statement reiterating that her office agreed Khan was eligible for early release.
“Today’s outcome in no way undermines the severity of the crime, the unfortunate loss of life, or the trauma inflicted upon the family of the victim,” Becton said. “As the criminal justice system continues to evolve, we must collectively continue to find the balance between public safety, accountability, fundamental fairness under the law and the rights of victims. As prosecutors, we too must adapt our sense of fundamental fairness to reflect what is right, and what is just.”
©2019 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)