Traditional Felony Murder
The traditional felony murder rule, as it is currently under California Penal Code 189, states that “any murder […] which is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, or any act punishable under Section 206, 286, 288, 288a, or 289, or any murder which is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person outside of the vehicle with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.”
The difference between felony murder and standard murder is that felony murder is a strict liability crime. Strict liability does not depend on actual negligence or intent to harm. This means that if you can prove that a person committed a felony and you can prove that someone died in the commission of that felony, then the perpetrator is guilty of felony-murder. There is nothing further to prove. However, murder as it is listed under California Penal Code 187 requires an element of mens rea. Mens rea is the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime. Murder under this statute must be proved to be premeditated, willful, and deliberate to be considered murder in the first degree. (See my other blog post if you’d like to learn more about premeditated murder.)
Okay so sounds good right? Felons who commit murder get a strict liability sentence, because they’re already evil minded and we don’t want them in society anyway. It’s easy to say that felons should be locked up, because we fear the harm they have on society as a whole. However, fear does not make felony murder justified. The strict liability sentence puts perpetrators away for far longer than is justified for the crime they commit. By all means, if someone walks into a bank with intent to rob and intent to kill, then they absolutely deserve the charge of felony murder in the first degree. However, not all murder are that cut and dry. Take People v. Stamp for example. S walks into a bank with the intent to rob the bank. S does not want to harm anyone. While S is in the bank collecting money from the teller, someone in the bank with a pre-existing heart condition becomes frightened and has a heart attack and dies. That person died in the commission of S’s felony. S will now face a felony murder charge of felony robbery and murder in the first degree although he had no intention of harming anyone.
Another example: Imagine A, B, and C decide to burglarize a house. A sits in the car outside. B and C go inside. Each of the three intends to commit the burglary. B goes to the bedroom and C goes to the kitchen. B has a gun on him that A and C were unaware of. In the bedroom, B meets the person who lives in the house, and in a moment of panic, kills the homeowner. B, who committed the felony and had intent to kill receives a charge of felony murder and a life sentence. What about A and C? They both intended to commit a felony, but they had no idea B had a gun and they were not wishing for anyone to die. Under California Penal Code 187 as it is currently written, A and C would receive the same punishment as B, despite the fact that their actions can hardly be considered first degree murder.
SB 1437 – The New California Bill
On September 30th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1437 which will go into effect on January 1, 2019. Regardless of your stance on the bill, understand that this is an important change for the sentencing of certain criminals. This new bill will change the liability criteria for felony murder. The new bill amends California Penal Code 189 to require that the perpetrator is either (a) the actual killer, (b) not the actual killer but acted with intent to kill, or (c) acted with reckless indifference to human life. These requirements do not apply to a person who kills a peace officer as that person would still be held to a strict liability standard. Currently, 400-800 inmates are seeking to re-apply for new sentencing under this bill.
This bill will help teenagers like Shawn Khalifa, who was 15 when he was convicted of felony murder, be treated fairly in the criminal justice system for their actions. Khalifa was one of four teenagers who broke into an elderly neighbor’s house in 2004, hoping to steal some money. Khalifa’s participation in the crime included guarding the door of the kitchen and stealing some chocolate candies. One of his friends killed the homeowner in a room that Khalifa was not in. As a result, Khalifa received a sentence of 25 to life for felony murder, although he did not lay a hand on the victim.
The reason California amended the statute is not because they want felons roaming the streets or because they aren’t concerned about the victims. The new bill is about justifying sentences so that the consequences match the responsibility of the perpetrator. If you commit murder with the intent to do so while committing a felony, then yes you will still deservingly receive a felony murder charge. The purpose of the bill is to give lighter sentences to those who lacked the element of mens rea while a murder took place during the commission of the felony, giving these perpetrators a fairer sentence. The bill does not mean that perpetrators are getting away with murder, but rather, they are receiving a justified sentence for the actions they are responsible for. The bill reserves the harshest punishments for those who directly participated in the death (such as B in the aforementioned example).