Criminal Justice

California Reforms Murder Laws to Require Defendants to Actually Play a Role in the Killing

Hundreds may see their sentences overturned or shortened.

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Inmate
Fernando Gregory / Dreamstime.com

In California, you now actually have to participate in a murder to be charged with murder.

Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown signed S.B. 1437, a bill that significantly restricts the application of what's known as the "felony murder rule." Under this rule, accomplices could be charged with murder whenever somebody is killed in the commission of a felony crime, even when they played no role in these deaths, sometimes even if they weren't at the scene of the murder.

In short, there are people in prison for murder who did not commit "murder" under any logical definition of the word. The Los Angeles Times reports that 72 percent of women behing bars in California for felony murder did not, in fact, commit the killing for which they're now serving life sentences.

Take the case of Bobby Garcia. He and some friends robbed a man for gas money when he was in high school. Somebody stabbed the man to death. When the man was stabbed, Garcia says he was waiting in the car to flee the robbery. But under California law, that didn't matter: He was charged not just for his role in the robbery but with murder, as though he had committed the slaying himself. He wound up serving 21 years. Now a free man, he's been lobbying for these changes.

Under S.B. 1437, co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican in the state Senate, a person can only be convicted of felony murder if he or she actually participated in the killing, acted with intent to assist the killer, or was a "major participant" in the underlying felony and acted "with reckless indifference to human life."

The bill also allows for those who have been previously convicted for these felonies to get those convictions tossed and be resentenced. This may affect between 400 and 800 people currently serving prison time, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Those numbers might seem low, given that more than 120,000 people are serving time in state prisons in California. But keep in mind the prospect of a felony murder life sentence has also been a tool to browbeat defendants into plea deals. That's what happened with Garcia. Changing this rule means one less way for prosecutors to intimidate defendants.

Unless one of their buddies killed a cop. S.B. 1437 has one big exception: It doesn't apply when the victim is a police officer. If one of your partners in crime panics kills a cop, you're all getting charged with murder.

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  1. It sounds like Garcia would still fit under the law.

  2. If they acted “with reckless indifference to human life” I would think they would be rewarded with a job as a police officer, not sent to prison.

  3. Put them back on the streets. It’s not like they’ll be killing me, or anyone I care about. Plus, it saves money that could go back to taxpayers.

    1. That could easily prove to be an unwarranted assumption.

  4. I wonder how this affects sentencing for organized crime cases.

    1. I wonder that too, though maybe they’re expecting other laws can be used such as conspiracy to commit murder….but I don’t know.

    2. If you’re part of a drive-by shooting, or a planned hit, you were part of it, as compared to being a getaway driver for a crime which got out of control.

      I’m not really sure how I feel about this change. If you participate in a crime which involves weapons, you are threatening to at least hurt people, and possibly kill them. Even if everyone frisks each other for weapons and the crime involves fingers in pockets, you still have to expect some low chance that your victims will fight back, and if a victim pulls a weapon, maybe one of your fellow crooks will grab the weapon and cause a death.

      All these possibilities are known ahead of time, much like a roller coaster rider has to recognize that someone ahead may throw up and soak you, or that hiking the great outdoors involves the risk of stumbles and wild critters, or that crossing a street involves the risk of drunk drivers hitting you.

      Don’t play stupid games with stupid people in stupid places.

      1. If you and I plan a crime that involves you threatening someone with a gun, I don’t see how I can claim I “wasn’t involved” when the victim doesn’t fork over the loot or tries to defend himself and you kill him. It would be one thing if you and I planned to hack and ATM and when things go bad you shoot someone trying to stop you. There, I think I can legitimately say I didn’t intend anyone to get hurt and should not be held responsible for you going nuts and killing someone. But if using violence and the threat of death or serious bodily harm is part of the plan, I don’t see how you can claim that I am not also responsible for any resulting deaths.

        1. Even in your ATM case, you have to realize that someone may try to stop your illegal act. Are you planning to run, surrender, or fight? If you run and your buddy fights, maybe that’s reason enough to not be part of the assault/murder charge. Or if you stick around and try to stop your buddy when he pulls out a weapon.

      2. There are lots of charges you can pin on the other person involved, without charging them as if they had pulled the trigger. I think that is the main point here, as they noted that this weakens the DA from forcing you into a guilty plea for something you did not do. This makes it so they actually have to WORK for a conviction. They have to PROVE you had prior knowledge.

        1. A better reform would be to get rid of plea bargaining altogether. Plea bargaining essentially guts our right to a trial by jury.

          1. Plea bargaining is never mandatory. Any defendant who would rather take his (or her) chances with a jury has a perfect right to do so. Fact is that without the option of plea bargaining the criminal justice system would grind to a halt, bringing much of the civil court system with it (criminal cases take priority so civil courts would have to suspend their calendars to deal with the criminal cases).

            1. It’s not mandatory, but it’s done under duress. “Plead guilty to a minor crime, or we’ll charge you with the full crime. You might prove your evidence, but even if you do, your lawyer will be happy that you’re paying for his oldest child’s education!”

              This is what effectively nullifies the right to jury trials.

              Perhaps this “justice” will grind to a halt. If that’s the case, though, we should seriously consider reforms — both in what is illegal, how we prosecute, and even how we resolve civil disputes — as it stands now, though, it’s *very* easy for an innocent person to just plead, do time, and put the horrible experience behind.

              1. And quite often plea bargaining works out to require lying in court, saying you did a crime that you didn’t do, in order to avoid the full punishment for what you did do – or what your lawyer is afraid that the prosecution can emotionally manipulate a panel of people too stupid to get out of jury duty into convicting you for, no matter the evidence.

  5. S.B. 1437 has one big exception: It doesn’t apply when the victim is a police officer. If one of your partners in crime panics kills a cop, you’re all getting charged with murder.

    Are you *sure* there’s not also an exception for when the victim is an illegal immigrant?

    1. That’s the unwritten exception.

  6. Take the case of Bobby Garcia. He and some friends robbed a man for gas money when he was in high school. Somebody stabbed the man to death. When the man was stabbed, Garcia says he was waiting in the car to flee the robbery

    Yes. This is what’s known as being an accessory before the fact. To the robbery. And the robbery went bad, so someone died.

    Someone who wouldn’t have died if Bobby and his buddies had not chosen to commit a violent crime against him.

    I’m beginning to think you always pick shitty examples for your crusades against injustice because there aren’t a whole lot of good ones.

    The crime was clearly premeditated. Everyone knew it could go bad–hence the need for a getaway car.

    Stop siding with obvious openly violent criminals.

    1. Everyone knew it could go bad–hence the need for a getaway car knife.
      FTFY

    2. You beat me to it. Fuck Bobby Garcia. He got exactly what he deserved. He engaged in a robbery that he knew would involve threatenign the lives of innocent people. He is just as responsible as the guy who pulled the trigger.

    3. They didn’t actually change the law here, they just made the charging more subjective to the whims of the court.

    4. An accessory before the fact provides aid to the commission of a crime prior to the commission of the crime. Garcia was at the scene. Therefore he was an accomplice in the crime itself.

      It was an armed robbery, therefore a crime that necessarily involved a grave risk of harm to the victim, therefore one in which it is perfectly reasonable to hold all participants responsible for any death caused by commission of the crime.

      California is losing its mind

  7. I see the point, but it’s difficult to be sympathetic to those involved in these situations. But maybe we shouldn’t make it easier to be in a gang?

  8. It’s good to know that cops are still legally more of a person than me.

  9. The Los Angeles Times reports that 72 percent of women behing bars in California for felony murder did not, in fact, commit the killing for which they’re now serving life sentences.

    Ah yes, a statistic of uncertain providence, repeated completely out of context, that implies women are victims of institutional oppression. An excellent way to support legal change.

    Small, irrelevant question here. How many of those women would still be guilty under the new language of the law?

    Under S.B. 1437, co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican in the state Senate, a person can only be convicted of felony murder if he or she actually participated in the killing, acted with intent to assist the killer, or was a “major participant” in the underlying felony and acted “with reckless indifference to human life.”

    That could still leave people who “did not, in fact, commit the killing” guilty, and justly so, if they acted as an accomplice. How many of the 72% of female felony murder convicts, who didn’t commit murder with their own hands, were willing accomplices or even the masterminds behind the murders?

    1. Correct, most will almost certainly still be guilty but all will just as certainly appeal. At least the courts will be busier?

    2. were willing accomplices or even the masterminds behind the murders?

      That’s what I’m wondering. I wonder if– to give one example– Duerte of the Philippines would get a lighter sentence for the sanctioning of extra-judicial killings because it’s not Duerte out there pulling the trigger.

    3. I’ve heard of a case where a woman got death row, even though the actual murderer got life. Turns out that she convinced him to kill someone, and he testified against her in exchange for a lighter sentence.

      I have a hard time arguing with that!

      Indeed, I personally know someone who was murdered by her husband’s girlfriend. He convinced her to do the stabbing. If she got life in exchange for convicting him of murder, and getting him on death row, I’d be 100% satisfied with that outcome.

      Yes, it’s weird wanting someone you know to be on death row. But when I learned of the evidence of his involvement, I couldn’t help it.

  10. Good, except for the part at the end about “panics kills a cop”. This is offensive. I’m tired of this brainless cop-killer coddling. If anything this justifies the exception.

  11. This is a mistake.

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