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May 16, 2019

California felony murder revisions showcase, yet again, the varied challenges of giving retroactive effect to sound reforms

The Marshall Project has this notable new article about the application of California's new felony murder law under the headline "California Law Says This Man Isn’t a Murderer. Prosecutors Disagree." Here are excerpts:

After California changed its murder laws last fall, Neko Wilson was the first man to walk free. Wilson, 37, had been facing the death penalty for a 2009 robbery that led to the deaths of a couple in Fresno County.  No one accused him of killing anyone, or even being in the family’s home that night, but prosecutors said he helped plan the break-in.  At the time, that was enough for him to be charged with felony murder, under a doctrine that holds that anyone involved in a crime is responsible if a death occurs.

But in September 2018, the legislature limited murder charges to people who actually participate in a slaying. And so in October, Wilson left the Fresno County jail, where he had spent nine years awaiting trial, subsisting largely on beans and instant noodles....

That freedom may be short-lived.  Prosecutors have moved to send Wilson back to jail, arguing that the new law that freed him violates California’s constitution and that freeing him was a mistake.  A hearing is set for May 16.

District attorneys around the state have launched similar challenges since prosecutors in Orange County successfully argued in February that the new murder law unconstitutionally clashes with anti-crime initiatives that voters approved in 1978 and 1990.  As prisoners around the state seek release, some judges have agreed with the constitutional argument and others have rejected it, setting up a fight that is likely to end up in the state’s highest court.

The cases are a sign of the broader pushback facing state lawmakers who have passed laws aimed at reducing the prison population and the cost of incarceration.  After decades of tough-on-crime laws, California now leads the nation in shrinking the number of people behind bars, while crime remains near historic lows.  But the trend has angered some prosecutors, who say lawmakers are risking public safety.

May 16, 2019 at 01:09 PM | Permalink

Comments

I don't know what is the definition of "people who actually participate in a slaying." But I am concerned that there are cases where the most culpable person is not present for the actual slaying. Examples include a case where a mob boss orders a subordinate to carry out a killing or a case where someone hires a hitman.

Posted by: William Jockusch | May 18, 2019 7:19:15 PM

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