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New California Law Could Reduce Hundreds of Felony Murder Sentences

Advocates say the felony murder law in the state had been unfairly applied, resulting in hundreds who did not actually commit murder serving decades — even life — in prison

Men in prison in Tracy, California.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Shutterstock

On Sunday, September 30th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1437, limiting the state’s long-held felony murder rule and creating a pathway to resentencing for hundreds of convicted prisoners. For decades, prosecutors have been able to hold accomplices responsible for murders that occur during the commission of a felony, like robbery or burglary, even if they were not present. Under the new law, a person can only be convicted of murder if he or she “was the actual killer” or “aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer.”

Supporters of the bill have argued that California’s felony murder rule is both too broad, and predominantly used against people of color, women and young people.

“The law is not fairly applied,” Democratic State Senator Nancy Skinner, one of the bill’s authors, said back in August, according to the Sacramento Bee. “If it were universally applied to any and every person that was in or around a crime that resulted in a homicide, then many more people would have been charged with felony murder and the statute would have been changed a long time ago.”

The bill is retroactive, which will allow an estimated 400 to 800 prisoners serving time for felony murder, including those who took plea deals, the opportunity to apply for resentencing. Like Shawn Khalifa, who is serving 25 years to life for his involvement, at age 15, in a 2004 burglary that left an elderly homeowner dead. Khalifa admitted to stealing chocolate from the victim’s home, but didn’t witness or participate in the murder. Curtis Brooks was also just 15, and homeless, when, in 1995, he agreed to help acquaintance steal a car, but had no clue the car’s owner would end up shot in the head. Brooks was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state prosecutors’ association and other critics have argued that the bill’s retroactivity would cause “potentially disastrous and costly problems.” According to The New York Times, felony murder convictions in California are not tracked or labeled, which means that, theoretically, anyone with a murder conviction could apply to have their case re-examined. The state expects to spend millions of dollars on processing resentencing applications and transporting eligible prisoners to court for resentencing hearings.

Supporters of the bill, including Skinner and the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican State Senator John Anderson, say the costs will be offset by the amount of money saved from reduced sentences. Currently, the cost to incarcerate a single prisoner in California is approximately $80,000 per year.

The signing of Senate Bill 1437 could also impact those currently facing felony murder charges, like Neko Wilson, who has been sitting in a Fresno jail for nine years awaiting trial. He was arrested, along with five others, for a 2009 robbery of a marijuana grow house that resulted in the owners being murdered. Wilson admits he went along to case the house, but refused to participate in the robbery. He stayed in the car – which testimony at a co-defendant’s trial corroborated – and didn’t learn anyone had been killed until later. Even still, prosecutors charged Wilson with two counts of felony murder and planned to seek life in prison without parole. Thanks to Senate Bill 1437, prosecutors will likely have to revisit the charges against Wilson.

California is one of 46 states with a felony murder statute, and one of 24 that consider it a capital offense; some states detail which offenses qualify for felony murder, while others rely on the common law interpretation of “inherently dangerous” crimes. Over the years, several states, including Hawaii, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Michigan have passed laws which limit how the felony murder rule can be applied, based on factors like the defendant’s level of participation and overall intent. California’s felony murder rule has long been controversial; back in 1983, the state’s Supreme Court actually argued for its abolition, saying it “anachronistically resurrects from a bygone age a `barbaric’ concept.” But law enforcement agencies and victims’ rights groups have fought against reform efforts, arguing that people who participate in crimes that end in death should not be given a free pass.

“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” Skinner, one of the bill’s authors, said in a statement after Brown signed the bill into law. “SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”

In This Article: California, Murder

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