This Woman Spent 19 Years in Jail for a Murder She Didn't Commit. Now ICE Is Trying To Deport Her.
Deportation proceedings are a second layer of prosecution for people who have either served their sentences or had their convictions overturned.
Sandra Castaneda, an immigrant from Mexico, has called the United States home for over 30 years. She spent 19 of those years doing prison time for a murder she didn't commit—and even though her conviction was overturned last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is still trying to get her deported.
Castaneda came to the U.S. on a green card in 1991 at the age of 9 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where she became friends with members of a local gang. On May 10, 2002, Castaneda was driving a group of gang-affiliated friends to a restaurant when they encountered members of a rival gang. One of the passengers began to fire shots at them, killing one person and injuring another. Court documents indicate that Castaneda had possessions and tattoos linking her to the Florencia 13 gang, though Castaneda testified that she had quit the gang several years prior to the shooting incident.
The shooter and other passengers fled the car, but Castaneda was apprehended by the police. On May 7, 2003, the Los Angeles County Superior Court sentenced the 21-year-old Castaneda to 40 years to life in prison for second-degree murder. She had no prior criminal record, save a few tickets for violating curfew in her youth, according to advocates. "Prosecutors did not allege that she took part in the killing or had any role in planning it," writes Sam Levin for The Guardian, which first reported on Castaneda's case. "The shooter was never charged."
Castaneda was convicted of murder despite the fact that she didn't fire the lethal shots—something that the California 2nd District Court of Appeal acknowledged. Her conviction was made possible by California's felony murder rule, which held that anyone involved in a death that occurred during the commission of a felony could face a murder charge despite having no intent to kill. As Reason's Billy Binion has reported, felony murder rules have repeatedly led to murder charges for individuals who never directly killed anyone. For instance, Ryan Holle was sentenced to life in prison because his housemate committed a murder after borrowing his car, even though Holle himself was 1.5 miles away from the scene of the crime when it took place.
California's felony murder rule has since been altered by S.B. 1437, under which "felony murder can now be prosecuted only when the accused had the intent to kill." The 2018 law is also retroactive, giving those convicted of felony murder the chance to petition for reduced sentences.
This reform led to a judge dismissing Castaneda's conviction in 2021 and ordering her immediate release. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) had commuted her sentence one year prior, noting "her positive conduct in prison, the fact that she was a youthful offender, and her good prospects for successful community reentry." But on July 27, the day Castaneda was scheduled to be released, she was instead picked up by ICE. With no available beds in California, she was sent out of state and is now in ICE custody at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The agency is seeking to deport her.
Getting a conviction expunged doesn't necessarily shield migrants from immigration law enforcement. "Such alterations will have legal effect for immigration purposes if they are based on a procedural or substantive defect in the underlying criminal proceeding, but not if they are based on reasons unrelated to the merits, such as rehabilitation," according to a 2019 Department of Justice decision. Several states, including California, "have passed laws in recent years to help people dismiss convictions and ensure they are protected from deportation, but the federal government has fought to circumvent them," writes Levin.
That's why Castaneda is battling deportation proceedings, despite her legal permanent resident status. The U.S. immigration system sometimes doles out noncriminal punishments even after a migrant's jail time is up, adding a second layer of prosecution for people who have either served their sentences or had their convictions overturned.