Joseph Brooks Conkright, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for killing his mother in their Berryessa Highlands home almost four years ago, is seeking resentencing in Napa County Superior Court this month.
Conkright, 23, has been in jail or prison since being arrested on Dec. 8, 2014, the day a shot fired from his rifle killed his mother, Danae Dee Conkright, 54.
During a four-week jury trial in 2016, Conkright’s attorney, Matthew C. Bishop, argued that Conkright was cleaning his AR-15 when dropped it on the table in front of his mother, misfired and killed her.
The jury came back with their verdict after deliberating for less than a day. Conkright was acquitted of murder and convicted of involuntary manslaughter and illegal possession of an assault weapon.
The jury also concluded that Conkright personally used an assault weapon during the commission of the crime. That special allegation, which can carry an additional prison sentence of up to 10 years, was taken into consideration during Conkright’s sentencing. He was sentenced to three years for involuntary manslaughter, five years for personal use of an assault weapon, and a concurrent term of two years for illegal possession of an assault weapon.
In his appeal, Conkright challenged the imposition of the personal use enhancement, argued that the prosecutor engaged in prejudicial misconduct during closing arguments, and asserted that, because of a recent amendment to California law, he must be remanded for resentencing.
Previously, the court could not strike or dismiss the enhancement – even in the “interest of justice” – during sentencing. Since Conkright’s sentencing, that section has been amended. Now, Bishop says, the court has the power to dismiss Conkright’s special allegations and sentence him as if he were convicted of only involuntary manslaughter and illegal possession of an assault weapon.
The First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed that Conkright was entitled to be remanded for resentencing based on the amendment, but disagreed with his other claims.
Just because the jury didn’t find Conkright guilty of murder, the Appeals Court noted, doesn’t meant that they didn’t think he intentionally fired the gun. And, it noted, just because he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter doesn’t mean the jury agreed with Bishop’s theory that the weapon misfired after being dropped.
Conkright has been transferred back to Napa County, with his next hearing scheduled for Aug. 23.
Since he’s been in prison, Conkright has completed college courses and is doing “extremely well,” Bishop told the Register.
“I’ve always maintained this was an accident,” Bishop said. If the special allegation is dismissed, it would take a “sizable term off his sentence.”
If the enhancement is dismissed, Conkright could be released based on time already served.