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The End of the Felony Murder Rule as We Know It in California

Nov 01, 2018 by Mike McKneely in Criminal Defense
Inmate Holding Cell Bars Wondering if the New Felony Murder Rule is Applicable to Their Case

Under California’s existing felony murder rule, you can go to prison for murder if a death occurs during the commission of a felony offense you were involved in – even if you don’t actually commit the murder. The rule was made as a way of holding people responsible for the extended consequences of committing or abetting felonies. But the rule turned out to be unfair in practice, with many people spending time in prison for murders they had little or nothing to do with. For this reason, California adopted an amended form of the felony murder rule, Senate Bill (SB) 1437, which will take effect on January 1, 2019.

If you or a loved one has been wrongly accused of murder, or if you’re wondering whether or not this new law will affect your case, contact a Fresno murder defense attorney from Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer right away. To schedule a free and confidential case consultation, contact us today at 559-443-7442.

Why is California’s Old Felony Murder Rule Unfair?

California Penal Code Section 189 holds that you can face criminal charges if someone dies while you are committing, attempting to commit, or participating in a felony such as arson, rape, robbery, and more. For instance, if you and an accomplice attempt to rob a grocery store, and your accomplice kills the cashier, you would face felony murder charges. It wouldn’t matter if you had no intention of killing anyone, the killing of the cashier was accidental, or you were already outside and didn’t even know the killing took place at all.

In practice, the felony murder rule has resulted in many people going to prison for murder under questionable circumstances.

What is the New Felony Murder Rule?

Contained in SB 1437, the new felony murder rule requires that a prosecutor prove one of the following beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a felony murder conviction:

  • You killed a person
  • You aided and abetted the killing
  • You were a “major participant” in the killing
  • The victim was an on-duty peace officer

As with the old rule, a prosecutor also needs to demonstrate that you committed, attempted to commit, or were a participant in a felony. What changes is that the prosecutor will also need to prove additional elements beyond the mere fact that someone died while the felony was being committed. The idea is to make sure that only people who engaged in additional criminal behavior will end facing punishment for murder.

SB 1437 will go into effect on January 1, 2019. The law applies retroactively, however, so people who were convicted under the old felony murder rule may be eligible for resentencing. Hundreds of California inmates might be eligible for resentencing under the new law. The additional years added to their sentence for the felony murder convictions could be erased, meaning that some of them could walk free decades before their scheduled release.

The penalties for felony murder remain the same. As before, murder is classified as a first or second-degree felony. First-degree felony murder is punishable by 25 years to life in prison, or even the death penalty. First-degree murder is often charged in the commission of (or attempted commission of) different serious felonies, including:

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

All other murders are considered second-degree, and are punishable by 15 years to life in prison.

Contact a Murder Defense Attorney Today

The penalties for felony murder are harsh. If you or a loved one has been involved in a felony that resulted in the loss of life, you will need experienced legal counsel by your side. Call Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer today at 559-443-7442, or reach out via our online form to schedule a free, initial evaluation.

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