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California Changes the Felony Murder Rule

Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation Jan. 19, 2023

Shape of body marked on a crime sceneSenate Bill (SB) 1437, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on September 30, 2018, changed the criteria for conviction of felony murder. Felony murder refers to a killing that occurs during the commission of a felony. Under the previously worded Penal Code Sections 188 and 189, a person could be convicted of felony murder by simply being part of the commission of a felony. 

For example, suppose five people rob a convenience store. One person is carrying a gun. In the course of the robbery, the lone gunman fires shots at the store clerk, killing him. The other four people involved in the robbery, who had no weapons but participated in the crime with no intent to kill, could be charged with felony murder. This is because of a clause in the code that allowed a felony murder to be charged if the killing was a “natural and probable consequence” of the crime being committed. 

SB 1437 has done away with the “natural and probable consequence” clause in Sections 188 and 189 and set up new standards for the charge of felony murder. Further, the law is retroactive, meaning that those who were convicted under the old definition can petition for resentencing.  

If you’re facing a murder charge in or around the greater Modesto, California area, the revised felony murder rule under Sections 188 and 189 regarding natural and probable consequences may provide you with a new defense against the charge. Contact Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation immediately if you’re being investigated for or being charged with murder. Criminal defense attorney Ryan Roth will aggressively defend your rights and pursue every legal avenue to help you obtain the best possible result. 

Located in Modesto, Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation proudly serves clients in Stockton, Manteca, Merced, and throughout California. Reach out immediately. Your initial consultation is free. 

What Is California’s Felony Murder Rule? 

As briefly discussed above, felony murder in California is the taking of a life during the commission of a felony or during an attempted felony. For a first-degree felony murder charge, which can result in life in prison without the possibility of parole, the felony must be robbery, burglary, arson, rape, carjacking, kidnapping, torture, mayhem, or various sexual crimes. If the felony does not qualify as first-degree felony murder, then it could be a second-degree charge, which can lead to 15 years in state prison. 

What Changes Were Made Under California Senate Bill 1437? 

SB 1437 took effect on January 1, 2019, and was made retroactive, as mentioned above. This means that it provides not only new standards for proving a charge of felony murder, but it also allows individuals convicted under the previous Penal Code Sections 188 and 189 to petition to have their convictions and sentences revisited. 

The law specifically does away with the natural and probable consequences clause, which made the death of any person during the commission of a felony or an attempted felony the basis for a felony murder charge. Under natural and probable consequences, the death did not even have to be inflicted by a participant in the felony. For instance, if an individual kidnaps their boss’s wife and holds her for ransom, but she dies from a heart attack during the process, the kidnapper could have been charged with felony murder. 

In general, murder in California is the unlawful taking of a human life with malice aforethought. Malice may be express or implied. Under natural and probable consequences, malice could be implied by one’s mere participation in a felony. There was no legal requirement to examine the mental state of the person so charged. 

In the wake of the changes brought under SB 1437, a person can now be found guilty of felony murder only if: 

  • He or she were the actual murderer 

  • He or she acted with intent to kill, such as assisting the actual killer or encouraging the killer to carry out the act 

  • He or she was a major participant in the crime and acted with “reckless indifference to human life” 

  • The victim was a police officer killed on the job and “the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties” 

Resentencing of Those Convicted Under the Old Rule 

SB 1437 allows anyone convicted under the natural and probable consequences clause to seek resentencing. The creation of Penal Code Section 1170.95 allows people convicted under the previously worded Penal Code to petition the trial court where the original sentencing took place to vacate the conviction and obtain resentencing. The petition can be filed whether the defendant was convicted by jury trial or accepted a plea deal. 

The prosecution has 60 days to file a response, and thereafter the defendant has 30 days to reply to the response. The court will then hold a hearing to determine whether the murder conviction should be vacated and the defendant resentenced. 

Experienced Guidance You Can Depend On 

If you are facing a murder charge or serving time from a conviction under the previous felony murder criteria, you will need the guidance and representation of an experienced criminal defense attorney. You can rely on attorney Ryan Roth to examine every aspect of the case against you, or the sentence you received for felony murder, and develop a strong strategy to assert your rights. He will fight aggressively in your behalf. 

Contact Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation, whenever you face a criminal investigation or charge. Your future hangs in the balance, so seek out the best representation you can find, one that is dedicated to protecting your rights and fighting for your future. The firm is proud to serve clients across Modesto, Stockton, Manteca, Merced, and throughout the state of California.