Petitioning for a Reduced Sentence Under California’s New Felony Murder Law
(Senate Bill 1437)

Certain persons that were proven guilty of felony murder in California may be able to get a reduction in their sentence.

On September 30, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1437, changing the State's felony murder law.

California's new felony murder rule limits who can be prosecuted for felony murder to those who commit or intend to commit a killing.

Specifically, under the new law, a person can only be convicted of felony murder if he:

  • Killed a person in the commission of a felony, or in an attempted felony;
  • Aided and abetted the killing;
  • Was a major participant in it; or,
  • The victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties.

Examples of felony murder under the new law are when:

  • After Nathan commits the felony of grand theft auto, he intentionally hits a witness with the car and drives over him.
  • After Kyle helps a friend rob a convenience store, he holds the store owner while the friend repeatedly stabs the owner with a knife.
  • Jason lights a car on fire (thereby committing the felony of arson) while he knows a person is sleeping in the back of it.

Cases Affected by Senate Bill 1437

A critical feature of SB 1437 is that it is retroactive, meaning it applies to defendants that were accused of felony murder under the old law. This means some persons accused of felony murder, under the old law, may petition to try and get a reduction in their sentence.

Under SB 1437, the parties that can petition for a reduced sentence include those that were proven guilty of felony murder under a natural and probable consequences theory.

Eligibility for Resentencing under Senate Bill 1437

SB 1437 states that a person is eligible for a reduced sentence if three conditions are met. These are:

  1. The defendant was convicted of felony murder under a natural and probable consequences theory;
  2. The defendant was convicted of first- or second-degree murder; and,
  3. The defendant would not have been convicted of murder under California's new felony murder law.

Appealing a Sentence Under Senate Bill 1437

A person that wishes to appeal for a reduced sentence, under SB 1437, must first file a petition showing that he is eligible for a reduced sentence. The petitioner then has to attend a resentencing hearing.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

california reduced felony murder charges attorney judge and plaintiff
Certain persons that were proven guilty of felony murder in California may be able to get a reduction in their sentence.

1. Criminal Liability Under California's Old Felony Murder Rule

Under California law, a person is guilty of murder if he:

  1. Kills a person; and,
  2. Does so with the intent to kill, or with malice aforethought.

The old felony murder law basically allowed a defendant to face murder charges even without malice aforethought.

Under California's old felony murder law, a person could get convicted of felony murder simply if a victim died during the commission of a felony. This was true even if:

  • The defendant did not intend to kill a person;
  • The defendant did not know a homicide took place; and,
  • The killing was an accident.

Essentially, the only requirements were that:

  • A defendant committed a felony, or aided in the commission of a felony; and,
  • A person was killed – even if by accident.

Example: Tom kidnaps an elderly woman (violating Penal Code 207, California's kidnapping law) for ransom. He does not inflict any physical harm or force on her. However, in a state of fear, the woman suffers a heart attack and dies. Under this set of facts, Tom could have been charged with felony murder under the old felony murder rule – even though he inflicted no harm on the woman and had no intent to kill her.

2. Criminal Liability Under California's New Felony Murder Rule

Unlike the old law, the new felony murder law requires a greater element of an intent to kill by the defendant.

According to SB 1437, a person commits felony murder, and therefore is liable for murder, when he commits, attempts, or participates in a felony; and, one of the following is true:

  1. He kills a person;
  2. He aides or abets in the commission of murder in the first degree with an intent to kill;
  3. He was a “major participant” in the felony and acted with “reckless indifference to human life;” or,
  4. Because of the defendant's acts, a peace officer was killed while engaged in the performance of his or her duties.1

Example: Returning to the example above, Tom is innocent of felony murder. He did commit the felony of kidnapping, but he did not commit murder. He did not kill the woman. He did not help anyone murder the woman with an intent to kill. And, he did not act in a way that showed a “reckless indifference to human life.” The woman died from a heart attack and not because Tom inflicted any harm or force.

california reduced felony murder charges attorney client
Non-felony murder results in a charge of first-degree murder or second-degree murder, depending on: The facts of the case and the specific felony involved.

3. Penalties for Felony Murder Under Senate Bill 1437

Non-felony murder results in a charge of first-degree murder or second-degree murder, depending on:

  • The facts of the case; and,
  • The specific felony involved.

Similarly, there are two degrees of felony murder – first-degree and second-degree. Different penalties are imposed for each separate degree.

A first-degree felony murder conviction can lead to:

Second-degree felony murder is any felony murder that does not qualify as first-degree felony murder.3

A second-degree felony murder conviction can lead to 15 years to life in California state prison.4

4. Cases Affected by SB 1437

Senate Bill 1437 is retroactive. This means that inmates currently serving time for felony murder can apply for a sentence reduction.

But, the new law imposes one condition on this general rule. It only applies to those defendants that were proven guilty under a natural and probable consequences theory (“NPC theory”).5

Under an NPC theory, a defendant is guilty of felony murder if:

  1. He assisted in a felony (often called a “target” crime);
  2. In the commission of the felony, a co-participant committed the crime of murder; and,
  3. Under all the circumstances, the murder was a “natural and probable consequence” of the felonious acts.6

A coparticipant in a crime is anyone that aided and abetted another person in committing the crime.7

A “natural and probable consequence” is one that a reasonable person would know is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes.8

Courts determine if a consequence is natural and probable by examining all of the facts within a given case.

Example: Carl shows up drunk at his friend Doug's house. Carl tells Doug that Carl's girlfriend, Wendy, just cheated on him. Carl has a revolver and is in a fit of rage. He tells Doug repeatedly that “it's payback time,” and that Wendy “is going to get what she finally deserves.” Carl asks Doug for a ride to Wendy's house.

Doug agrees and waits in the car while Carl goes inside. While inside, Carl pushes and hits Wendy. During the beating, she denies cheating and starts verbally abusing Carl for the false allegations. Carl then strikes Wendy in the face and on the head with his gun. He repeats these acts several times. Wendy later dies because of the blows from the revolver.

Under an NPC theory, Doug might be found guilty of murder. He aided Carl in the felony of battery, per California Penal Code 242, by driving Carl to Wendy's house. Given the facts, a judge or jury might say that a reasonable person would have known that Wendy's murder was a “natural and probable consequence” of Carl's actions. The pertinent facts are that Carl was drunk, had a gun, was in a fit of rage, and made several threats towards Wendy.

Note that, using an NPC theory, Doug could be charged with murder even though he never intended to kill Wendy and took no forceful or violet acts towards her.

5. SB 1437 and Eligibility for Resentencing

SB 1437 states that a person is eligible for a reduced sentence if three conditions are met. These are:

  1. The person was prosecuted for felony murder under an NPC theory;
  2. The person was convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder following a trial, or, accepted such charges as a plea offer; and,
  3. The person would not have been convicted of murder under California's new felony murder law.9

Example: To help understand this third condition, consider Doug above. Doug would meet the requirements of this condition since he is not be guilty of felony murder under Senate Bill 1437. This is because he did not personally kill Wendy. Further, he did not aid or abet in killing Wendy. He aided to the felony of battery, not murder. He was also not a major participant to the battery. He simply drove Carl to Wendy's home and waited in the car.

6. Rules for Appealing a Sentence under Senate Bill 1437

Appealing a sentence, in accordance with SB 1437, requires two things. These are:

  1. A petition; and,
  2. A resentencing hearing.

6.1. Petition

Under SB 1437, a person appealing a sentence is known as a petitioner. To appeal, the petitioner must file a petition with:

  • The court that sentenced the petitioner, or
  • The agency that prosecuted the petitioner; and,
  • The attorney that represented the petitioner.

The petition has to include a declaration from the petitioner that shows he is eligible for a sentence reduction. Again, eligibility is determined by meeting the three conditions discussed above (see section 5).10

6.2. Resentencing Hearing

If a petitioner shows that he is eligible for a sentence reduction, then a hearing is held.11 The hearing determines whether or not the petitioner's sentence actually gets reduced.12

At this hearing, it is not the job of the petitioner to show that his sentence should be reduced. Rather, the prosecutor has the job of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the petitioner's sentence should not be reduced.13

If the prosecutor cannot make this requisite proof, then:

any allegations and enhancements attached to the conviction, shall be vacated and the petitioner shall be resentenced on the remaining charges.14

The judge hearing the case makes the final decision as to what new sentence gets imposed.

A person that is resentenced will be given credit for time served. Further, the judge may order that the petitioner receive parole supervision for up to three years following the completion of the sentence.

Do you believe you are entitled to a reduced sentence under California's new felony murder law? Call us for help…

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know believes they are entitled to a reduced sentence for a felony murder conviction, pursuant to Senate Bill 1437, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at (855) LAW-FIRM.

Legal References:

  1. California Senate Bill 1437.

  2. California Penal Code 190 PC.

  3. California Senate Bill 1437.

  4. California Penal Code 190 PC.

  5. California Senate Bill 1437, Section 4, added Penal Code 1170.95(a) PC.

  6. 1 CALCRIM 402.

  7. See same.

  8. See same.

  9. California Senate Bill 1437, Section 4, added Penal Code 1170.95(a)(1)-(a)(3) PC.

  10. California Senate Bill 1437, Section 4, added Penal Code 1170.95(b)(1) PC.

  11. California Senate Bill 1437, Section 4, added Penal Code 1170.95(d)(3) PC.

  12. See same.

  13. See same.

  14. See same.

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