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California sets new limits on who can be charged with felony murder

California sets new limits on who can be charged with felony murder
State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) talks with Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) during the Senate session. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Sunday that limits who can be prosecuted for felony murder to those who commit or intend to commit a killing.

The new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, scales back California’s current felony murder rule, which allows defendants to be convicted of first-degree murder if a victim dies during the commission of a felony — even if the defendant did not intend to kill, or did not know a homicide took place.

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For defendants facing prosecution for the crime, the new law could mean a shot at less time in prison. Hundreds of inmates serving time will be able to petition the court for a reduced sentence.

The new felony murder law, a bipartisan proposal co-authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine), is among a series of criminal justice policies enacted under the Brown administration to reduce the numbers of those incarcerated, and give prisoners more chances of early release and services to better prepare them to enter society. State lawmakers this legislative session also eliminated the use of money bail and reduced punishment for teens under 15.

Defense lawyers and other supporters say the new prosecution standards requiring proof of intent will make the state’s felony murder law similar to how prosecutors charge other crimes. Cases in which an officer was killed will not be subject to the new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1. But law enforcement groups opposed the changes, arguing it could lead to more violent people on the streets.

On the Assembly floor in August, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a former Sacramento County Sheriff's deputy, said the proposal was too lenient on willful participants in crime, such as defendants who drive a killer to the scene of the crime.

"What if it was your family member lying there dead?” Cooper asked.

Lawmakers who supported Senate Bill 1437 called the state’s felony murder law archaic and blamed it for disproportionately long sentences imposed on people who did not kill anyone.

A 2018 survey that found 72% of women serving a life sentence for felony murder in California did not commit the homicide. The average age of people charged and sentenced under the statute was 20, according to the report from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Restore Justice, a nonprofit that helps offenders reenter society.

Bobby Garcia, who served 21 years in prison for murder and lobbied for the legislation, cheered its approval on Sunday, saying it would help thousands of young people. He was in ninth grade when he and four teenage friends robbed a man for gas money on their way to a party in North Hollywood.

Hours after the incident, police pulled Garcia and his friends over and took them to the station, where he said he learned the man they robbed was stabbed. Garcia said he punched the man but was not involved in his killing, and believes it occurred while he was in the car waiting for his friends.

“I pleaded with the police that I never planned to murder someone, that my intent was just to rob someone,” Garcia recalled of the 1992 incident. “But the police told me that it didn’t matter according to California law.”

Garcia said he took a plea deal and served 25 years in prison, versus facing a jury and the possibility of lifetime incarceration. Since his release from prison at age 37, he has counseled prisoners who, like himself, were charged with crimes as teens and young adults.

He said their decision to rob someone for gas money might seem callous to people who didn’t have his upbringing. But to teenagers living in rough neighborhoods or dysfunctional homes, it made sense at the time, he said.

“Money was not something we came by, it was something that usually we had to beg for,” he said.

Garcia said young people should be held accountable for their actions as he once was.

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“They should be held in prison, but they shouldn’t be held in prison for the rest of their lives for a crime they didn’t do,” he said.

On Sunday, Skinner called the law a historic and reasonable fix, bringing California in line with other states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan that have narrowed the scope of their felony murder rules.

“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” she said in a statement released Sunday. “SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”

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