October 30 – Eighty-year-old Doris Shotwell knows she’s too old to fast for days on end without food or water.
But Bakersfield’s mother sees little choice when her son is locked up for about 40 years for a murder that didn’t involve pulling the trigger. Praying to God for her children and fasting are her regular ways of hoping for the release of 60-year-old Cedric Struggs.
“I haven’t lost my faith at all,” Shotwell added. “I believe he will come out.”
Her prayers aren’t Shotwell’s only hope right now. The passage of a new law, Senate Bill 1437, changed the definition of felony murder, which could lead to Struggs’ release.
“I think he has a good, strong case that he can’t be convicted of felony murder now,” Deputy Public Prosecutor Cynda L. Bunton, who represents Struggs, said in a telephone interview Friday.
Could a toothless grin have been the trigger for murder?
Three men entered the office of a Hudson Oil gas station in the early morning hours of July 16, 1980 to confront two others, according to an opinion of the 5th District Court of Appeal in the Struggs case.
Two were shot. One did not survive.
One of the three who entered the gas station waved a small revolver at Alfred Joe Dishman and demanded that he give them money. But Dishman had a perpetual grin on his face for having no teeth, the appeal said.
Dishman covered gray money bags marked “Bank of America” and “Hudson Oil” with his arm, but was shot in the chest by Ronald Robinson. Dishman died instantly.
The three robbers — Robinson, Struggs and Phillip Carter — ran out of the store with $2,500, the statement said. Robinson shot Nettie Sanchez in the right shoulder as he drove away, but Sanchez survived.
But attorney Bunton, who represents Struggs, said only one person was close to Dishman when he died.
“And it all happened very quickly,” Bunton added.
This newspaper ran a story about the murder and robbery the next day in 1980 and offered a $1,000 reward for information about the incident. A man named Leonard Hickman read the paper and contacted The Californian with descriptive details about the robbery suspects.
The newspaper’s Secret Witness coordinator told police at the time that Hickman was able to identify the three men involved in the shooting. Later that day, The Californian ran another story stating that Hudson Oil was offering $5,000 for testimony leading to convictions.
Hickman contacted the police for the $5,000 reward, but the police withheld it until he agreed to testify and received a conviction. He told police a conversation with Robinson, Carter and Struggs after the robbery.
Struggs said he and his friends went to the gas station to scare the clerk, grab the money and run, Struggs told Hickman, according to a lawsuit filed in the Fifth District Court of Appeals by the current Attorney General of the United States. California, Rob Bonta, requesting a new hearing. for Struggs under SB 1437.
But Dishman’s perpetual grin and iron grip on the moneybags prompted Robinson to shoot him, Struggs told Hickman, according to Bonta’s briefing.
Both Carter and Struggs were jailed on unrelated charges when police placed them in nearby interrogation rooms. Bakersfield Detective Munoz told Struggs that his cooperation could lead to him being prosecuted only for the robbery and not for the murder.
After the police left, Carter and Struggs discussed making their stories coincide, and both men made “confessions” of the crime, according to Bonta’s briefing. Munoz had a tape recorder playing and recording their conversation.
Sanchez, the second victim, identified Robinson and Carter but was unable to identify Struggs in a lineup, the briefing added.
Struggs was eventually found guilty of first degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon and theft. He was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison by a Kern County jury in 1981.
A Bonta spokesperson wrote in an email Friday that the attorney general agreed that this case should be referred back to court for a new hearing on the potential applicability of SB 1437.
The appeal procedure
Struggs appealed his conviction in 1983, but an appeals court upheld the court’s decision, according to Kern County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kinzel, a spokesman for the OM.
Struggs was eligible for parole in 2003 but was not granted parole by the board of parole hearings. Most recently, he was denied parole for five years in May 2022. It is not clear why the probation committee rejected his request.
In 1980, the law said that if a co-conspirator committed murder during a violent crime, violent crime conspirators could be found guilty of murder “even if murder was not part of the plan, and even if only one person was the ‘real killer’.” Kinzel wrote in an email.
The theory behind this liability for murder was that if a group of people decided to participate in violent and dangerous crimes and a murder occurs during that crime, all the conspirators should be held responsible for the murder, Kinzel wrote.
But a new law changed the definition of murder liability. Senate Act 1437, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, said anyone can be convicted of felony murder if the following factors are met: the person must have committed the murder or had intent to kill; aided or spurred on the actual murderer; must have been a “major participant in the crime”; and must have acted with reckless indifference to human life.
Struggs filed a petition under SB 1437 to have his conviction revoked. Kern County Superior Court judge Michael Bush denied his request because he was still a “key participant” in the robbery and acted with “reckless disregard for human life” for being present during the actual armed robbery and was part of the planning, Kinzel wrote.
“The judge specifically noted that the plan for the robbery involved using a firearm to at least intimidate the victims and ask for obedience,” Kinzel continued.
Struggs appealed his decision to the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which sided with Struggs and sent the case to the courts to determine whether his murder conviction should be overturned.
A hearing to determine the outcome of Struggs’ murder conviction is scheduled for Nov. 29. Both sides could call witnesses with new evidence.
Deputy public defender Bunton, who represents Struggs in court, said the hearing was continuing because the deputy prosecutor in the case wanted more time to review the transcripts of the lawsuit. Test copies would be the evidence the court can use to make a decision, she added.
Bunton said the DA would have to determine that Struggs was not the actual murderer, but then must prove whether Struggs acted with “reckless indifference to human life” and was a “major participant” in the underlying crime.
Nearly every witness in this case is dead, which could make it difficult for both sides to argue the case, she added. Lawyers will rely on trial transcripts to establish the facts of the case, but Bunton added that during the 1980 trial there was no discussion of Struggs as a key participant in the crime and whether he acted with reckless disregard for human life. .
Robinson, who actually pulled the trigger, could be called by Bunton to testify, the attorney said.
“The prosecutor has previously opposed and continues to oppose Struggs’ attempt to lift the murder conviction,” Kinzel wrote.
If Struggs is successful, his murder conviction could be revoked and he would be sentenced again on the remaining charges, “probably a term not including life imprisonment,” Kinzel noted.
“In such a scenario, he could be released almost immediately because of the amount of time he has already served,” Kinzel continued.
A family divided
Edward Shotwell knows the pain of death after the loss of a loved one.
It’s the same feeling without Struggs in his life. Edward Shotwell is Struggs’ younger brother.
Struggs wasn’t there to cheer him on at Foothill High School basketball games or teach him about cars, he said.
Doris Shotwell, the mother, said her family has visited Struggs about 10 times in the past 40 years because ailments afflicting her family prevented them from visiting.
Shotwell showed reporters letters from Robinson and her son during an interview in south Bakersfield. Her son says he is on a CPAP machine and has trouble breathing.
“Keep the faith and pray!” Struggs wrote to his mother on October 24.
At 80, Doris Shotwell wants to see him before she dies. She said they already have plans — Struggs, at age 60, wants to talk to kids about his experiences in prison.
“I miss him very much,” Shotwell said.
Robinson will also often write to Doris Shotwell. He’s her cousin.
“I am truly sorry for the death I caused and the pain I inflicted on the victim’s family, friends and community,” Robinson wrote in a letter dated Aug. 18, 2015. got Cedric in jail.”
You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.