October 1, 2018
California reduces reach of its broad felony-murder law, and provides for retroactive sentence reductions accordingly
In my Criminal Law class, we just finished a unit on mens rea and are about to start on homicide laws. This interesting legal news out of California, headlined "California sets new limits on who can be charged with felony murder," comes at a very convenient time for me. Much more importantly, the law might mean less time in prison for others who got convicted of murder despite having no intent to kill. Here are the basic details:
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Sunday that limits who can be prosecuted for felony murder to those who commit or intend to commit a killing. The new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, scales back California’s current felony murder rule, which allows defendants to be convicted of first-degree murder if a victim dies during the commission of a felony — even if the defendant did not intend to kill, or did not know a homicide took place.
For defendants facing prosecution for the crime, the new law could mean a shot at less time in prison. Hundreds of inmates serving time will be able to petition the court for a reduced sentence.
The new felony murder law, a bipartisan proposal co-authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine), is among a series of criminal justice policies enacted under the Brown administration to reduce the numbers of those incarcerated, and give prisoners more chances of early release and services to better prepare them to enter society. State lawmakers this legislative session also eliminated the use of money bail and reduced punishment for teens under 15.
Defense lawyers and other supporters say the new prosecution standards requiring proof of intent will make the state’s felony murder law similar to how prosecutors charge other crimes. Cases in which an officer was killed will not be subject to the new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1. But law enforcement groups opposed the changes, arguing it could lead to more violent people on the streets....
Lawmakers who supported Senate Bill 1437 called the state’s felony murder law archaic and blamed it for disproportionately long sentences imposed on people who did not kill anyone. A 2018 survey that found 72% of women serving a life sentence for felony murder in California did not commit the homicide. The average age of people charged and sentenced under the statute was 20, according to the report from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Restore Justice, a nonprofit that helps offenders reenter society....
On Sunday, Skinner called the law a historic and reasonable fix, bringing California in line with other states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan that have narrowed the scope of their felony murder rules. “California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” she said in a statement released Sunday. “SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”
October 1, 2018 at 08:51 AM | Permalink
If there is a meaningful way to distinguish degrees of culpability, I think it could make sense to have different degrees of felony murder. For example, a getaway driver who was genuinely unaware a murder occurred should still serve time because of the murder, but maybe something like 5-10 years instead of life.
But rather than the State having to prove that you have a high level of culpability, I think it would make more sense if it worked like a partial affirmative defense. Just as self defense is a complete defense to murder, but you have to explain what happened to claim it, this could be a partial defense, but you have to explain what happened in order to claim it. That would include testifying against co-defendants. I imagine this wouldn't be a popular opinion with Doug. But if you want the benefit of reduced culpability, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to have a corresponding responsibility to help the State understand what happened and to act against those who have greater culpability.
Posted by: William Jockusch | Oct 4, 2018 12:21:12 AM