Felony murder is a charge as serious as it is complex. Even after the definition of the offense was simplified in 2019, it still confuses many.

Felony murder occurs when a death happens during the commission or attempted commission of certain felonies, regardless of the intent to kill. In California, the stakes are incredibly high for those facing such accusations, because the penalties are the same as if the defendant committed murder.

If you or someone you know has been accused of felony murder, it’s crucial to seek skilled legal representation immediately. Contact Robert M. Helfend today to discuss your case for free – 805-273-5611.

What is 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.

First-degree murder

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:

  1. Is premeditated, deliberate, or committed willfully 
  2. Is committed through the use of explosives, weapons of mass destruction, or through torture
  3. 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.

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

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

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, Mr. Helfend has what it takes to build an aggressive defense strategy to get you the best possible outcome. Call 805-273-5611 for a free consultation.

Published January 11, 2020. Updated November 17, 2023.