California man held in jail for nearly six years without trial on drug murder charges

California man held in jail for nearly six years without trial on drug murder charges
The case exposes an ongoing rift in state criminal law

In 2016, Dennis “Spike” Wright was murdered in South Lake Tahoe, California, during a drug deal gone wrong. Harvest Davidson, 26, didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s been sitting in jail for nearly six years on murder charges, which activists say should be illegal under a recently passed state law.

Mr Davidson was one of six men wanted for participation in the killing, which occurred amid a potential sale of 100 pounds of marijuana in a Tahoe hotel parking lot. The 26-year-old wasn’t present when Wright was killed — Dion Vaccaro, a co-defendant, was convicted in 2020 for pulling the trigger — but prosecutors say he was aware of the planned robbery and waiting nearby as a “wheelman.”

His family, and civil rights advocates, meanwhile, say that he should not have to spend more than half a decade in jail without a conviction, and that a 2018 California law prevents prosecutors from charging people collaterally with murders they themselves did not directly commit.

“You have a young man that doesn’t have a criminal background, that has a steady working history, and has never been involved in this type of crime,” NAACP Sacramento branch president Betty Williams told The Sacramento Bee. “Allow him the opportunity to reunite with his family and to fight this court case.”

The NAACP, Black Lives Matter, and others have rallied around the case, and held a “Free Harvest Davidson” demonstration on Monday.

“The dilemma here is that this case has been pending since February 2016. Complete discovery should have been proven years ago,” Tina Perry, Mr Davidson’s mother, said at the event.

She says her son, one of the last two of the six to go to trial, isn’t guilty, and that incongruous page numbers on case materials released by El Dorado County prosecutors in discovery suggest there’s missing evidence, which the office has denied and called “unfounded.”

The Independent reached out the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

Most of the DA’s case is based on the evidence of another co-defendant, Tristan Batten, who cooperated with officers before backing out of his plea deal in 2020. He was sentenced to 26 years for his role in the plot, driving another co-defendant away from the scene of the shooting.

Harvest Davidson “was parked around the corner from the parking lot where the confrontation between Vaccaro and Wright took place, and thus could not have seen the shooting, done anything to stop it, or rendered aid to Wright,” one of his attorneys wrote in a court document in 2019.

The case gets at a deeper argument over criminal law in California.

In 2018, the state legislature passed a bill called SB 1437, which barred prosecutors from charging people with murder if they hadn’t been directly involved in or knowingly intending to facilitate the killing,

Prosecutors, including those in El Dorado County, have argued against the law, claiming it goes against previous California initiatives like 1978’s Proposition 7, which increased penalties for murder amid the terror caused by the Mansons and the Zodiac killer.

“This was the start of the tough-on-crime era,” Kate Chatfield, a law professor at the University of San Francisco who helped write SB 1437, told The Appeal. “It was a very conservative period that led to mass incarceration in this country, and Proposition 7 very much started that movement.”

State officials like former Attorney General Xaiver Becerra, who left office in 2021 to become the Biden administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, have stood behind the measure, including as it specifically applies to Mr Davidson’s case.

In July of 2019, he argued in a brief that there’s no conflict between SB 1437 and previous state law, and that the bill instead “changes the elements that must be proven to convict for the crime of murder.” Later that month, he said in a statement that “reforming the felony murder rule is a major milestone in the quest to make our criminal justice system fair and equitable” and that he is “proud to stand up and defend it in court.”

SB 147 has been upheld various times in California courts, though some state judges have found it invalid as well.