New Legislation: CA’s new Felony Murder Rule

Imagine a manager of an electronics store stays late one night to do paperwork. He doesn’t realize that his employees left a side door unlocked. John and Chad are walking along and happen to see the unlocked door. They can see from the window that the office door is slightly closed, with a light on inside. Whispering, they decide they can quietly sneak in, grab a couple of game consoles with controllers and a few games, and probable sneak out without ever being noticed. They manage to get in and grab the items, but the manager hears a noise and comes out. Chad suddenly pulls out a gun and fires a warning shot in the air to scare the manager back- but the bullet hits a metal pole and ricochets into the manager, killing him instantly.

Under the Felony Murder Rule, even if John didn’t fire the gun, and even if Chad didn’t intend to hurt the manager at all, and even if John had no idea Chad had a gun at all: both Chad and John can be convicted of First Degree Murder, and both can even face the death penalty for it.

California follows the same strict FMR, but effective January 1, 2019, SB 1437 (Skinner) will change accomplice liability for murder, such that proof of malice will be required to be convicted of murder. This does not apply if the victim is a police officer.

Starting in January, any participant in certain specified felonies is liable for first-degree murder only if one of the following is proven:

  1. a) The person was the actual killer;
  2. b) The person was not the actual killer, but, with the intent to kill, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer in the commission of murder in the first degree; or,
  3. c) The person was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, as specified.

For Chad in the story above, he may still possibly face charges under either (a) or (c) above. For John, however, he will probably not face murder charges unless his own “reckless indifference to human life” can be proven.

Also, for people currently serving time under the old, strict FMR, this bill provides a detailed procedure by which the convicted may have his or her case reviewed under the new law.

If you or a loved one are facing a possible conviction, or are currently serving under the FMR, I am here to help you navigate your options under the new legislation.

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