Updates to the Felony-Murder Rule in California

If you or your loved one were sentenced to prison under the felony-murder rule in California, you may be eligible for re-sentencing. A new law was signed on September 30, 2018 redefining the crime of felony-murder in California. This law will impact prison sentences for hundreds of men and women sentenced over the last few decades.

Every state has something similar to the felony-murder rule. This rule states, in general, that if someone dies during the commission of a felony, you can be convicted of both the underlying crime and murder.

For a lot of people, this meant that they were sentenced to life in prison or even death rather than a lesser sentence. Some of the crimes that carried the possibility of the felony-murder rule included:

  • Rape
  • Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Carjacking
  • Mayhem

Here’s how the felony-murder rule works. Let’s say four men decide to rob a liquor store. The clerk at the store gets so scared that he has a heart attack during the commission of the crime. Prior to the new law, all of the men involved in the burglary could have been charged with felony-murder. This is because the clerk died. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t shoot him or even touch him.

Under the new felony-murder rule, these same men may not have been convicted of murder. The new bill, Senate Bill 1457, was signed into effect in September of last year. The goal of the rule was to steer people away from long prison terms.

What are the Changes to the Felony-Murder Rule Under SB 1457?

California didn’t do away with the felony-murder rule all together. It has just changed the ways in which it can be applied. It also limits the cases in which it will apply.

In California, first degree murder is defined as a killing that is intentional and premeditated. It carries a sentence of 25 years to life, or even death. It seemed a bit harsh to convict people of first-degree murder when they didn’t actually kill anyone. Since murder requires intent and premeditation, the legislature questioned if it can apply to an ancillary death under felony-murder.

Under the new bill, you can only be charged with felony-murder if you were a major participant in a felony where someone died. Someone has to be killed and the defendant has to show a reckless disregard for human life.

The bill also includes a requirement that the death be a natural and probably consequence of the crime. This will limit the number of situations in which felony-murder can be applied.

For example, if a man uses a gun to rob a gas station and shoots someone, it makes sense that he be charged with felony-murder. He should have known that a natural and probable consequence of his shooting the victim would result in death.

Let’s look at a different example. A man sets fire to his own home in order to collect the insurance money. On the way to the scene, a firefighter gets into a car accident and dies. This would not be considered a natural and probably consequence of the crime of arson. Therefore, this defendant probably wouldn’t be charged with felony-murder.

What Does the New Law Mean for Inmates?

There were over 300 men and women convicted of felony murder throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these inmates have already died or been released from prison. But there are still 143 still in prison today. Many of these inmates may be eligible for re-sentencing under the new felony-murder rule.

The way this will work is simple. Those convicted of felony-murder will be re-sentenced using the underlying crime. For many, this will mean immediate release. Most felony-murder sentences were for at least 25 years. Most felonies don’t carry sentences this heavy.

If the court decides that the defendant isn’t guilty of felony-murder under the revised bill, they may be released. For others, their release date will be imminent. It depends on how much time they’ve already served.

Contact a San Diego Criminal Lawyer Today

If you or someone close to you was sentenced under the old felony-murder rule in California, they could have new life. Call and speak with an experienced San Diego criminal defense lawyer today.

Your criminal lawyer in San Diego can review your case and let you know if Senate Bill 1457 applies. If it does, he can file a petition to have your case reviewed. This could be the difference between spending the rest of your life in prison or seeing the light of day soon.