Two California killers among hundreds to challenge murder convictions under state law change

Two men who spent more than 30 years in prison for the theft and murder of an elderly man in Banning are challenging their convictions under a 3-year-old law that redefines a person’s responsibility for murder.

David Earl Walker, 51, and Brandon Tyrone Collins, 52, were convicted in January 1992 of first-degree murder and robbery on the July 3, 1991, death of 77-year-old Wilbur Hutchins. Both were sentenced to 25 years in prison for life.

However, by Senate Act No. 1437, which entered into force on January 1, 2019, the principle of “natural and probable consequences” of the premeditated homicide rule has been repealed. Now, to be convicted of murder, the offender must have acted with malice that could not be based solely on participation in a basic crime.

Additionally, SB 1437 states that a person is responsible for murder only if the actual murderer, a principal participant in the underlying crime and acted carelessly toward human life, with intent to kill the victim or aid and/or abet the actual murderer in the commission of first-degree murder.

The law creates a procedure to punish killers who challenge their convictions under SB 1437. Collins and Walker are among hundreds of convicted murderers who have petitioned the court for a reinstatement since the law went into effect.

“I never intended to kill anyone. I’ve maintained my innocence from day one,” Walker said in a phone interview from California State Penitentiary in Lancaster, where he has been imprisoned for the past eight years. In the three decades he has been in prison, Walker said He spent stints in some of the state’s most brutal prisons, including Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Folsom.

A Riverside County Superior Court judge in 2019 dismissed Collins Walker’s SB 1437 petitions, but that decision was reversed on appeal. Now, a hearing is scheduled for February 4 in the same courtroom.

No intent to kill

In court petitions, both Collins and Walker asserted that they were not the actual killer and had no intention of killing Hutchins when they robbed him in 1991.

“The jury did not find me to have a reckless indifference to human life, nor that I intended to kill or that I was the actual murderer,” Walker said. “The only thing they found me guilty of was as an aide, a provocateur, and an aide in the murder. I always insisted that I be there.”

Attorney Mark Cantrell, who represents Collins, said his client admits to taking Hutchins’ money, but denies killing him or acting with “reckless indifference to human life.”

“No one is claiming this was good behavior, and (Collins) is definitely guilty of one or more crimes, but is he guilty of murder? That’s the real issue,” Cantrell said in a phone interview.

If the court finds Collins in his favour, it likely means that he will be sentenced for theft, given credit for the time he served, and released from prison. “That means he served all his time,” Cantrell said.

The same will likely apply to Walker.

‘Reckless indifference’

Riverside County prosecutors maintain that Collins and Walker in fact qualified to commit murder under current law.

Three witnesses told the authorities that it was Collins and Walker who robbed Hutchins and were present when the crimes occurred. Witnesses, along with Collins Walker, were among 15 to 20 people standing outside drinking and listening to music when Hutchins stopped in his car, asking if the woman he was friends with was at home.

Collins approached the side window and asked Hutchins for money. When Hutchins started the engine to try to stop the car, Collins got inside, turned off the engine, pulled the keys out of the engine and threw them out onto the street. Walker reached out and put the car into “park.”

Collins punched Hutchins in the face and head, got him out of the car and pulled two wallets out of his back pocket while Walker grabbed him by the arms. Collins pulled cash from purses before dumping it on the street and telling Walker to let Hutchins go. He then brought down Walker Hutchins, whose head hit some concrete.

After Collins Walker escaped, a witness went to check on Hutchins and later told authorities that Hutchins “is making this little gurgling sound, and his eyes are back in his head. Court records show he didn’t say anything, just making a slight gurgling sound.”

Witnesses also told investigators they heard Collins and Walker say they were about to burglarize someone before the confrontation. One witness said she heard Collins say “he would have gotten some money from someone, (even) if it was his mother,” according to a filing filed by prosecutors in court.

Police and paramedics arrived at the scene to find Hutchins, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 149 pounds, lying in a pool of blood on the street next to his car. He died the next day.

The facts, according to prosecutors, indicate that Collins and Walker not only acted with reckless disregard for human life, but both were major participants in Hutchins’ death.

“Here, both Collins’ and Walker’s behavior were a material factor in the death,” according to the prosecution’s memo, filed Dec. 6 in Riverside County Superior Court.

Hundreds of petitions have been filed

Since SB 1437 went into effect on January 1, 2019, hundreds of convicted murderers have petitioned the courts for hearings to determine whether they still qualify for murder under the change in law.

About 400 petitions have been filed in Riverside County Superior Court. A spokesman for the Attorney General John Hall said most were dismissed, but about 100 petitions were still under review. He said petitions continue to flow into the court weekly.

Jason Anderson, the San Bernardino County District Attorney, said his office has reviewed nearly 350 petitions. Los Angeles and Orange counties were not immediately able to provide information on the number of petitions filed in their counties since SB 1437 went into effect.

Attorney General Steve Harmon said the number of SB 1437 petitions filed in Riverside County prompted the county to hire only outside attorneys to deal with them. Harmon said his office would have had to hire additional staff just to handle the petitions, so the county decided it would be best to contract this specific service.

“These (petitions) are limited, so it doesn’t make sense for the county to hire new employees to deal with those issues, which could be done in a year, two or three,” Harmon said.

In Orange County, 403 petitions have been filed since the law went into effect, 219 petitions are still pending and 184 have closed, according to a spokeswoman for Attorney General Kimley Eds.

Los Angeles County figures were not immediately available.

Pay the debt?

For Walker and Collins, the judge will ultimately decide their responsibility for Wilbur Hutchins’ death and whether or not they have paid their debts to the community and they should be released.

Walker said he was 19 when he went to prison in 1992, and is a mum and father of a little girl, who he said is now 33. He said he learned to read and write in prison, and now he writes short stories and studies law.

He said he is now battling lung cancer, he regrets what happened over 30 years ago, but believes he paid for his crimes.

“I live with this every day. The victim is still on my mind 24 hours a day,” Walker said. “I am a man who has been training for 31 years. I don’t take anything for granted. Life is serious. I lost a lot.”

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