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SB 1437 And California’s Felony Murder Law

By February 16, 2021 No Comments

California SB 1437 became law on September 30, 2018. This California Senate bill changed California law applicable to the crime of felony murder. This new law went into effect on January 1, 2019. Senate Bill 1437 is retroactively effective allowing some individuals convicted under old California law related to felony murder rule to be resentenced to significantly shorter prison sentences.

For a defendant to be convicted of felony murder, the defendant must be charged with an underlying felony, or attempted felony charge. Because every felony has required elements that a prosecutor must prove to convict a defendant of a particular felony, failure to convict for the underlying felony means a felony murder charge may not be successfully asserted against the defendant as well.

Pennsylvania, in enacting one of the first state murder statutes in 1794, imposed capital punishment only for death that occurred in the perpetration of arson, rape, robbery, or burglary. The law effectively stated that murder in the course of one of the enumerated felonies did not require willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing to be punished as murder in the first degree.

The Pennsylvania statute had a broad-reaching effect on the legislation enacted by other states. It influenced 19th-century homicide reform laws in two-thirds of the states. No less than twelve states adopted Pennsylvania’s grading scheme with little or no modification, while nineteen adopted a modified version.

California followed a version of this rule and under its former felony murder law, a defendant could get convicted of felony murder simply if a victim died during the commission of a felony, despite the proven fact that the defendant did not intend to kill anyone; the defendant was unaware that a homicide occurred, or the killing was an accident. This was considered one of the harshest rules in criminal law.

Now, because of SB 1437, California’s new felony murder law makes intent a greater element and, therefore, a more relevant factor when convicting a defendant of felony murder. An extremely serious offense, felony murder may be charged in the first- or second-degree. First-degree felony murder may be punished by 25 years to life in state prison; life in prison without the possibility of parole; or the death penalty, although there is a moratorium on the death penalty in California currently. Second-degree felony murder is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 15 years to life.

California’s rule on felony murder rule now only applies when a defendant:

  • directly kills a person in the commission of a felony or attempted felony;
  • aids and abets the killing of a person in the commission of a felony or attempted felony;
  • is a major participant in the killing; or,
  • kills a peace officer acting in the performance of duty.

Senate Bill 1437 applies to persons that commit a felony, attempt a felony, or participate in a felony. If an accused participates in a felony, he or she must be a “major participant” in the felony to be successfully convicted for the crime of felony murder. Under California law, whether a defendant is a “major participant” in a felony is based on the facts of each case.

The attorneys at the Dolan Law Offices may help any Californian obtain the best possible result in his or her criminal matter. John Patrick Dolan is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law. Certification as a Specialist in Criminal Law is the highest achievement awarded by the State Bar of California to attorneys in the field of criminal law. The attorneys at the Dolan Law Offices have decades of experience defending individuals charged with drug possession, domestic violence, DUI, and violent felonies. Call us today at (760) 775-3739 or find out more online here.

SB 1437 And California’s Felony Murder Law