Murder is the most serious criminal allegation one can face, but defining what exactly constitutes murder and who should be charged for the offense has been a topic of debate in California. That’s because the state’s current murder law is so broadly written that individuals can be charged, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison under the statutory “felony murder” rule that holds accomplices to the same standard as having personally committed the crime. State lawmakers are now considering a Senate-approved bill that may change that.
As critics of the broad murder law note, accomplices can face life prison sentences for murders they did not commit, and that there have been cases involving defendants sentenced to life in prison who were unaware at the time that a homicide would or did take place. Lawmakers backing the proposed bill state that California’s current rule needs to be limited, but that it will still hold individuals who actually commit murder accountable.
The path for challenging the state’s felony murder law was recently cleared by a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August that ruled the law unconstitutionally vague. The incident in that particular case involved a man who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after firing a gun in an apartment building and killing a bystander. As the court ruled, he would be permitted to challenge the part of the felony murder law that permits murder convictions for “inherently dangerous” felonies which result in unintentional death.
The proposed bill would address that type of scenario and other incidents involving individuals who did not actually commit murder by limiting the scope of the statute and allowing murder convictions only for three types of defendants:
- Those who actually commit murder;
- Individuals who “with the intent to kill” knowingly solicit, aid, or assist the killer; and
- Individuals who are significant participants in an underlying offense, and who acted with reckless disregard to human life
Should the bill pass, it would require re-sentencing of offenders convicted under the broad murder law, but issues may arise in cases involving guilty pleas and the need for new jury trials, sometimes years after the fact. As proponents and the opposition continue to argue their sides, other states, as well as Canada and England, have already passed similar legislation to narrow broadly written murder laws.
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