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California bill would repeal felony murder law

Most states, including South Carolina, have “felony murder” statutes. These laws trigger first-degree murder charges against people who had no murderous intent. It also leads to murder charges against other individuals who were present or somehow contributed to an unintended death.

Lawmakers in California have introduced a bill to scale back felony murder prosecutions. Under the amended law, murder charges would be reserved for individuals who (a) intended to kill someone, (b) actually killed someone or (c) directly caused death through reckless indifference.

What is felony murder?                

The felony murder rule means that you can be charged with first-degree murder if you cause a death during the commission of any felony crime. Examples include killing a resident during a burglary, shooting someone during a drug deal, or running over a person while fleeing from police.

Sometimes felony murder statutes are stretched beyond the original intent. Four friends are all charged with murder when one of them goes too far during a street brawl. A convenience store robbery goes wrong and the girlfriend waiting in the car faces years in prison. 

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time?

Police, prosecutors and juries have little sympathy for a person who causes a death while committing a felony. The logic is that if they hadn’t broken the law, the victim would still be alive. Nor is there much sympathy for accomplices, even if they did not knowingly participate in the felony. You are judged by the company you keep.

However, the statute is often applied too broadly and justice occurs unevenly. Research by the Felony Murder Elimination Project revealed shocking statistics:

  • People convicted of felony murder in California are disproportionately African-American (40 percent) or Hispanic (27 percent).
  • Of women serving life sentences for murder, 72 percent of them were not the killer but were only peripherally connected.
  • One California man is serving a life sentence because he lent his car to a friend who ended up killing someone.

Broad support for repealing a questionable law

Those who attempt or commit murder are already subject to prosecution for first-degree homicide. There are aiding and abetting laws that punish knowing and willing accomplices. And there are lesser murder charges and manslaughter charges for those who cause unintended death through heat-of-passion violence, negligence or inaction.

Some lower courts in California have balked at the felony murder rule, calling it “artificial” and “unnecessary.” More than three decades ago, the California Supreme Court called the law “unwise” and “outdated” yet said that change must come via the legislature.

There are 45 states with some version of the felony murder rule, and half of those allow the death penalty for unintended deaths that connect to an associated felony. Four states have abolished their felony murder laws. England, from which we got this legal doctrine, abolished felony murder 60 years ago. The United States is the only country that still applies this rule.

Pennsylvania, like California, is considering legislation to repeal or limit such prosecutions. The California bill would not only amend the felony murder statute but apply retroactively to hundreds of people currently serving life sentences under the rule. Perhaps the tide will turn and other states – including South Carolina -- will join a return to the traditional definition of first-degree murder – intentionally causing death.

Source: American Bar Association Journal

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