Under California Penal Code Section 189, you could be convicted of murder for any killing that occurs while you are committing any dangerous felony, such as kidnapping, arson or carjacking. This is called the “felony murder rule,” and it makes all persons involved in the commission of the crime culpable for a killing during the commission of a dangerous felony, regardless of whether that person actually committed the act of killing the victim.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently cleared the path for an inmate serving 19 years to life for a felony murder conviction to challenge the law as unconstitutionally vague. At the same time, a bipartisan bill, Senate Bill 1437, is making its way through the California Senate. This law would restrict the felony murder rule to apply only to the person(s) who:
- Actually committed the act of killing someone
- Aided the killing with the intent to kill, or
- Acted with reckless disregard to human life during the course of the felony
What is the Felony Murder Rule? (PC 189)
Imagine you and a friend decide to rob a convenience store. On the night of the robbery, you and your friend bring guns to the store, and point them at the store clerk, who begins to empty money from the cash register into a bag. While you’re keeping an eye on the clerk, another store employee surprises your friend by coming out of a back room. Before you can say anything, your accomplice fires his gun at the ceiling in an attempt to warn the clerk not to move, but the bullet ricochets off a metal beam and strikes the clerk, killing him.
Under these circumstances, not only can you be charged with armed robbery, but you will also likely be charged with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. Although you did not pull the trigger, you participated in the commission of a dangerous felony and a homicide occurred as a result.
Why the Felony Murder Rule is Unfair
The challenges to the felony murder rule are based on two ideas.
First, the law is written in a vague manner. The Court of Appeals ruled that the felony murder rule is too abstract in that it generalizes the dangerousness of an act instead of requiring that the facts of the case show an intent to kill. Judge Ronald Gould, writing for the court in a unanimous opinion, wrote, “The risk threshold for an inherently dangerous crime is imprecise.”
The second challenge is based on the idea that it is grossly unfair to punish one person for the acts of another. Suppose in our previous example that instead of firing his gun into the ceiling, your accomplice pointed the gun directly at the store employee and fired the gun. That would be reflective of your accomplice’s intent to kill, but it does not reflect any desire on your part that anyone be killed as a result of the robbery. You also did not aid or act with reckless indifference to human life, as you never fired your gun nor did you say anything that encouraged your accomplice’s decision to kill.
The new law aims to correct this by requiring that each person who acts in the commission of a dangerous felony be judged based on his or her own actions and whether those actions can be directly linked to a homicide.
In addition, if the bill passes, SB 1437 will allow a person who is already serving a sentence under the felony murder rule to seek retroactive relief to set aside the conviction if he or she is not directly responsible for the killing. It is estimated that as many as 800 inmates may be eligible for resentencing under this bill.
Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Today
It may be very soon that persons convicted under the felony murder rule will have a chance to seek resentencing or early release from prison. At Wallin & Klarich, our skilled criminal defense attorneys have more than 40 years of experience successfully helping clients obtain post-conviction relief. Bookmark our website for the latest updates on this legal challenge and contact our firm if you believe you are eligible for post-conviction relief.
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 phone consultation. We will be there when you call.