On January 1, 2019, California’s new felony murder law went into effect. The new law, set forth by the newly signed California Senate Bill 1437, scales back California’s previous law by changing the circumstances under which a defendant can be convicted of first-degree murder.
Under the previous law, a defendant could be convicted of first-degree murder if a victim died during the commission of a felony, whether or not the defendant had any intent to kill. As a result, many defendants faced prosecution for murder despite a lack if intention to kill or lack of knowledge that a homicide had occurred.
The new felony murder rule under Senate Bill 1437 provides a change in the definition of felony murder that significantly reduces the possibility of a defendant being unfairly prosecuted.
California’s new homicide law will not only provide an opportunity for many inmates to petition the court for a reduced sentence, but may mean a much lighter sentence or outcome for defendants currently facing felony charges.
What is the difference between the old and new felony murder laws?
The main differences between California’s previous felony murder law and the new law under SB 1437 are related to the intent of the defendant. Under the old law, a person could be convicted of first-degree murder if someone died while he or she committed of a felony, even if the death was accidental, unintentional, or the defendant had no knowledge of it.
Example: Jon and Dennis plan to rob a convenience store. The clerk willingly hands the money in the register over to Jon and he heads back to the car while Dennis stays behind. While Jon waits for his accomplice to exit the convenience store so they can take off together with the money, Dennis and the store clerk get into an altercation and Dennis ends up killing the clerk. Jon is unaware that this unplanned part of the robbery has taken place.
Under the old law, Jon could have been charged with murder for the death of the clerk even though he had no intention to kill anyone and it was his partner who committed the act. The new law, in contrast, would require Jon to have shown greater intent to participate in a homicide and he may not be charged with felony murder.
The new legal definition of felony murder
Under California Senate Bill 1437, a person is guilty of committing felony murder under the following circumstances:
- He or she commits or attempts to commit a felony or is a “major participant” in a felony
- One of the following circumstances also applies:
- He or she kills a person
- He or she acts with reckless indifference to human life
- He or she aids and abets in first-degree murder with intent to kill
- An on-duty police officer is killed as a result of the commission of the felony
Below is more information about each of these defining elements of the crime:
Committing, attempting, or participating in a felony
In order for felony murder charges to be brought against someone, they have to have committed, attempted or participated in a felony.
- In order to be convicted of committing a felony, the prosecution must prove all of the defining elements of that crime. If the defendant is not found guilty of the felony charges brought against them, they cannot be charged with felony murder.
- A person can be charged with felony murder while attempting a felony, regardless of whether the attempt was successful. Unless it can be proven that the defendant intended to commit a felony and performed some act toward the aim of committing that crime, he or she cannot be found guilty of attempting a felony.
- The crime of felony murder may also apply to someone who acts as a “major participant” in a felony. While there is not a precise definition of what it means to be a “major participant” under California law, the court takes into account the facts of the case, including whether or not the defendant was present at the scene of the crime, had a role in planning the crime, or provided aid in the commission of the crime.
Aiding and abetting in murder with the intent to kill
While the new felony murder law is more lenient for the defendant in terms of intent, it still does not require that they actually commit a murder themselves in order to be found guilty. Under Penal Code 31 PC, a person may guilty of a crime or murder if he or she “aided or abetted” in it without participating directly.
Similar to participating in a felony, whether or not someone aided or abetted a crime is determined based on the facts of the case. However, in order for aiding and abetting to warrant a felony murder charge under SB 1437, it must be apparent that the defendant aided and abetted with the intent to kill.
A person is also subject to felony murder charges if he or she commits a felony and first-degree murder with the intent to kill. Under California Penal Code 189 PC, a first-degree murder is one that meets the following criteria:
- Is premeditated, deliberate, or committed willfully
- Is committed through the use of explosives, weapons of mass destruction, or through torture
- Is committed in conjunction with one of a number of felonies including burglary, kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, rape, arson, burglary, mayhem, torture, lewd acts with a minor, forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object, and train wrecking.
California offenses related to felony murder
Involuntary manslaughter and arson are crimes that each have certain things in common with felony murder, but are distinguished by California law for various reasons. Below are descriptions of these related crimes:
Involuntary manslaughter – California Penal Code 192(b) PC
Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another person under one of the following circumstances:
- While committing a legal but apparently dangerous act (one which may result in death) without taking the necessary caution
- While committing a crime that is not considered by California law to be a dangerous felony
The key features that distinguish involuntary manslaughter from felony murder are:
- Felony murder requires an intent to kill, whereas manslaughter is defined by a lack of intent
- Felony murder requires a felony to be committed or attempted in conjunction with killing another person, whereas manslaughter can, in some cases, be committed during an otherwise legal act
Involuntary manslaughter is a felony offense in California and is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and 2, 3, or 4 years in jail.
Arson – California Penal Code 451 and 452 PC
According to California Penal Code 451 and 452 PC, arson is defined as the willful and malicious or reckless setting of fire to any building, property, or forest land. The punishment for arson varies depending on the circumstances of the crime, including the injuring of another person. Committing arson with the intent to kill may result in felony murder charges.
California felony murder penalties and sentencing
In California, felony murder may be classified as either first-degree or second-degree.
First-degree felony murder is one that is committed in conjunction with any of the felonies set forth by Penal Code 189 PC, listed above. Second-degree felony murder involves any felony that is not listed under Penal Code 189 PC and may carry a lighter sentence in some cases. Below are the penalties for each of the two classifications:
First-degree felony murder
First-degree felony murder is punishable by any of the following:
- A California state prison sentence of 25 years to life
- A life sentence in California state prison without the possibility of parole
- The death penalty
Second-degree felony murder
Second degree felony murder is punishable by:
- A California state prison sentence of 15 years to life
Legal defenses against felony murder charges
If you are facing felony murder charges, there are a number of strategies that may be suitable for use in your case. It is crucial, however, that you hire a defense attorney who can help determine the best possible strategies for you and fight the charges on your behalf. Below are three of the most common strategies used against felony murder charges:
No felony was committed
Felony murder charges depend on a felony having been committed, attempted, or participated in by the accused. If you are found to be not guilty of the felony charge in question, you cannot be found guilty of felony murder.
There was no intent to kill
One of the important distinguishing features of California’s new felony murder law is the issue of intent. It is necessary under SB 1437 that the defendant have an intent to commit murder in order to be convicted. If you can prove that you did not have the intention to kill anyone, you may not be convicted of felony murder.
The defendant was not a “major participant” in the crime
“This man is a very effective criminal defense attorney. I was charged but I never had to go to court because the case was thrown out thanks to his efforts. I was very worried because I didn’t know anyone who could confirm my location, but he was able to prove that I was innocent.”
While whether or not a defendant is a “major participant” in a crime is not always clear-cut and depends on the facts of the case, it is still an important defining factor of a felony murder conviction. If your case demonstrates that you were not a “major participant” in the alleged felony, this strategy may be a good option for you.
If you’ve been charged with felony murder, the changes in California’s law may have a positive impact on the outcome of your case. A knowledgeable and skilled attorney who understands the ins and outs of California law is your greatest weapon of defense in navigating the legal system and defending your freedom.
As a defense attorney with over 30 years of experience representing clients in the Los Angeles area, I have what it takes to build an aggressive defense strategy to get you the best possible outcome. Don’t wait! Contact my firm today to schedule your consultation.