A new state law may be the pathway to freedom for hundreds of California inmates.
The former California governor, Jerry Brown, Jr., passed several bills into law allowing for significant reform to the state’s criminal justice system. On September 30, 2018, Brown enacted Senate Bill 1437, amending the felony murder rule.
Critics have argued that the felony murder rule has resulted in disproportionate punishment. The intention behind the felony murder rule was to deter individuals from negligently or accidentally killing someone while committing a felony. The rule was deemed problematic because a person’s intent to kill was not a variable in determining whether the person could get convicted of felony murder. After many years of disfavor, lawmakers set forth new guidelines on the application of the rule.
What is the Felony Murder Rule?
Prior to the enactment of the new law, any killing that occurred during the commission of a felony (e.g., burglary, arson, robbery) would result in a conviction of murder, even if the killing was accidental. The intent to kill was not a necessary element for conviction of felony murder.
Here’s an example of the law at work. X helped his friend Y plan to steal some lottery tickets from the local 7-11 using a toy gun. On the day of the crime X did not go along with Y. Y walked into 7-11 and pointed a real handgun at the store clerk. While trying to steal the lottery tickets, Y shot and killed the clerk. In this case, both X and Y would be liable of murder pursuant to the former felony murder rule.
Today, X would not be subject to the felony murder rule. Under the existing law, a person would be liable of murder if a death occurs during the attempted commission or commission of a felony, including one of the following:
- The person was the actual killer;
- The person was not the actual killer, but with the intent to kill, assisted the actual killer with the murder in the first degree;
- The person was a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life; or
- The victim was an on-duty peace officer and the person committing the felony reasonably knew that the victim was an on-duty peace officer.
What it Means for California
The new law is retroactive, which means that California inmates who have been convicted under the former felony murder rule may file a petition for resentencing in hopes of reducing their sentence. There are certain conditions that must be met prior to filing the petition. An inmate who was previously convicted for felony murder under the theory of first degree murder or murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine would be eligible to file the petition, given that the inmate would not have been convicted of that crime pursuant to the new felony murder law.
One of the first persons to be released under the new law was Adnan Khan, who was convicted of aiding and abetting a murder in 2004. Khan was convicted of first-degree murder under the former felony murder rule and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. In Khan’s case, he and three others had conspired to steal marijuana from a dealer. During the course of the robbery, one of the accomplices decided to kill the dealer. Khan did not know that any of the accomplices had a weapon or intended to use one. After serving 15 years in prison, Khan’s attorney filed a motion to overturn Khan’s murder conviction and re-sentence him pursuant to the new law. The honorable Judge Laurel S. Brady of Contra Costa County approved Khan’s motion and released him as a free man.
Cases will be prosecuted with more care in the future. This could also be a promising year for hundreds of California inmates convicted under the former felony murder rule. Defendants who did not commit the actual killing have a chance.