December 10, 2019 By Paul Wallin

New Case Helps in the Fight against Felony Murder Convictions

The fight to change California’s felony murder rule continues, but those in favor of changing it have gotten a powerful new ally. A recent case in the California Court of Appeal has reversed the first degree murder conviction of Ricky Lee Cobbs based on a new law that changed the felony murder rule.

The Facts of In re Cobbs

Cobbs was a part of a group that forced their way into a home to attack a man. While the beating was going on, one of the men pulled a gun and shot the victim in the chest, killing him. Cobbs was convicted of first degree murder after the court instructed the jury on two theories of murder: the jury could find him guilty based on the felony murder rule during the course of a robbery, or murder as the natural and probable consequence of assault and battery. The jury returned a guilty verdict but did not state which theory it accepted.

Cobbs filed a petition for habeus corpus, contending a previous ruling and a new law had invalidated his conviction. The case, People v. Chiu, invalidated the natural and probable consequence theory for felony murder convictions. The new law, SB 1437, shifts guilt for felony murder only to the person or persons who actually killed, who aided the killing with the intent to kill, or to any person who acted with reckless disregard to human life during the course of the felony. The Court of Appeal agreed, and reversed his conviction, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The Fight Over SB 1437

Previously, if you were involved in the commission of certain serious felonies, and a person died as a result of the felony, you could be charged with felony murder regardless of whether you were actually the person who caused the death. SB 1437, passed in 2018, basically restricts the felony murder rule only to the person who killed the victim.

Importantly, the new law is retroactive. That means that if you or someone you care about was convicted under a prior version of the felony murder law, it is possible to apply for resentencing under the new law, which could result in a reduction to the current sentence, or possibly an immediate release from custody.

How In re Cobbs Changes the Fight

With the law facing challenges to its constitutionality, the Cobbs decision seems to indicate that the higher courts are leaning toward accepting SB 1437 as the law of the state. The court held that SB 1437 abolishes the natural and probable consequence theory of murder, which means Cobbs cannot be retried on that theory.

The court also confirmed as valid the procedure for petitioning for relief from past convictions under the old felony murder rule, ruling that Cobbs is eligible to seek a petition under Penal Code section 1170.95 to have a felony murder conviction retroactively vacated, and for resentencing on any remaining counts. If his petition is granted, Cobbs could be looking at a drastically reduced sentence, or possibly even be released, depending on whether there are any counts still remaining after the petition is granted.

If the trial court does not grant his petition, the Court of Appeal ruled that the prosecution must either retry him for first degree murder, or accept a conviction to second degree murder.

How Do I Apply?

In order to be resentenced, you should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you apply for a hearing. Your attorney will need to argue that your actions did not fall within the definition of felony murder under the new law, and that you should therefore have your felony murder conviction overturned. Your attorney will argue that you did not:

  • Actually commit the act of killing someone
  • Aid the killing with the intent to kill, or
  • Act with reckless disregard to human life during the course of the commission of a felony

The prosecutor will likely to oppose your application to overturn your conviction. If he or she does so, your attorney can also counter the arguments of the prosecutor, which could be crucial in persuading the judge to overturn your conviction.

Contact the Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich For Help With Your Case

If you believe you or someone you love should be eligible for early release under the new felony murder law, you should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have more than 40 years of experience in helping clients facing charges under the felony murder law. Let us help you today.

With offices in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, San Diego, West Covina, Torrance, and Victorville, there is an experienced and skilled Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney available to help you no matter where you are located.

Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free, no-obligation phone consultation. We will be there when you call.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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