Criminal Justice

California considering end to felony murder rule

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California capitol

The California State Capitol. SchnepfDesign /

A bill in the California legislature could curtail felony murder prosecutions in the state.

The Marshall Project reported last week that the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee had recommended the approval of a bill to limit murder prosecutions to people who intended to kill, actually killed or behaved with reckless indifference to human life. The bill has already been passed by the California State Senate.

Under state’s felony murder doctrine, people involved in certain serious felonies that lead to death face the same liability as the killer—even if they did not intend to kill anyone. “Many times in California, if you didn’t commit the murder, didn’t know the murder occurred, you could be charged and have the same sentence as the actual murderer,” State Sen. Nancy Skinner, the legislation’s sponsor, told the Marshall Project. “They had bad judgment, but they didn’t commit a murder—and when I understood this, I knew we had to fix that.”

The bill under consideration in California would make it so only those who killed, intended to kill or aided in the murder of someone could be charged with murder.

The state does not keep statistics on how many people have been convicted of felony murder. However, according to the Marshall Project, advocates of the reform say that the state currently incarcerates 400 to 800 people on felony murder convictions.

A survey from the Felony Murder Elimination Project, a coalition of advocacy groups, found that black and Hispanic people disproportionately make up those imprisoned for felony murder, while 72 percent of women serving life sentences for murder in California were not the killer.

This bill comes on the heels of a cavalcade of reforms prompted by Brown v. Plata, a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California’s overcrowded prison system violated that Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

However, this is not the first attack on the felony murder rule in California. Going back to the 1960s, state judges have called the rule “highly artificial” and “barbaric”, going as far to say that it “not only `erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability’ but also is usually unnecessary for conviction….”

Calling the rule “unwise” and “outdated,” a concurrence from the state’s highest court in 1983 admitted that it was only the legislature that could fix the problem.

Even with this strong language, not everyone is ready to let the rule go.

Eric Siddall, a prosecutor and vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County, told the Marshall Project that: “The way the legislation is written, it gives everyone a path out, and only penalizes the actual shooter.”

Beyond future prosecutions, the bill also provides the means for retrospective vacatur and resentencing for those already convicted of felony murder.

Forty five states still have felony murder rules, 24 of which allow for the death penalty in such cases. Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Michigan have abolished the rule by either legislation or through the courts. In 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “attempted felony murder” is “impossible” to commit and refused to recognize it as a crime.

The Pennsylvania Legislature is currently assessing a bill to limit the rule.

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