California could give a second chance to hundreds of individuals serving prison time for murders they did not commit.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed without comment Senate Bill 1437, which scales back prosecutors’ ability to use the “felony murder rule” to charge accomplices to a homicide. It also allows inmates locked up for felony murder – estimated by proponents of the bill at between 400 and 800 – to apply for re-sentencing.
Current California law states that someone can be held criminally liable for murder if it occurs during a felony they committed, such as a burglary or a robbery, even if they were not present for the actual death.
But under SB 1437, which was jointly authored by Sens. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, and Joel Anderson, an Alpine Republican, a person can only be convicted of felony murder if they directly assisted with the homicide or if they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
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Supporters argue that the felony murder rule is used disproportionately against women, young people and minorities. They said the change will merely assign blame for a death to the correct people.
Law enforcement and victim advocacy groups vigorously objected. They worried it would allow people who committed crimes that led to a death to go free without accepting responsibility.
In a statement, Skinner called the bill “a fair and reasonable fix to California’s unjust felony murder rule.”
“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” Skinner said. “SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”