California’s felony murder statute must change according to some lawmakers and their supporters in the state. As it stands now, the felony murder law in California provides that if you participate in a felony and someone is killed during the commission of the crime, even if not by you, then you can be tried for first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison if convicted. The law even applies to cases in which the death of someone was an accident.
Lawmakers in California like Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who wrote the legislation to change the felony murder statute, want to “…restrict the criminal charge to those who committed or intended to commit a killing.” The legislation would also allow inmates already doing time for first-degree murder to ask the court to reduce their sentences. The legislation specifies that if a law enforcement officer is killed during the commission of a felony, the statute as it stands now would still apply.
All About Intent
The change in the felony murder statute is all about whether or not the perpetrator intended to kill during the commission of the felony. As the law stands now, people who were not directly responsible for a death are treated the same as those directly responsible for the death. Here are some hypothetical examples of crimes in which there was no intent to kill someone, but someone died and the participant in the crime was charged with first-degree murder:
- If a 20-year-old college student commits a stupid prank during Greek week and sets an abandoned car on fire and the fire sparks and ignites a house fire nearby where someone perishes in the fire, that college student can be charged with first-degree murder as the law now stands in California.
- Two perpetrators walk into a convenience store and rob the clerk at gunpoint. An 85-year-old man in the back of the store shopping dies of a heart attack due to shock, fear or surprise. The perpetrator not holding the gun can also be charged with first-degree murder in the state of California.
- During a home invasion, men ransacking a house are unaware there’s a baby in one of the rooms they tore apart. The baby later dies from a head injury suffered during the ransacking of the house. Even the guy sitting outside in the getaway car can be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
While intent is a complex legal topic and often difficult to prove, intent is at the heart of this legislation, and lawmakers have a challenging road ahead of them because not everyone agrees the felony murder statute is flawed.
Many lawmakers and Californians have called the existing felony murder statute archaic, and statistics show that a disproportionate number of people serving life sentences in California prisons that were not directly responsible for a death. One statistic in a 2018 report is especially alarming: 72% of women serving life sentences in California prisons did not commit the homicide for which they are incarcerated.
The felony murder legislation, known as Senate Bill 1437, moved out of the Senate with a 27-9 vote and bipartisan support; it moved out of the Assembly with a vote of 41-35.
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