Handcuffs, fingerprints of the detained criminal, a blank sheet of paper on the background of a wooden table.

California Changes the Felony Murder Rule

Zachary McCready Sept. 1, 2021

Before California adopted its revised felony murder law in 2019, people serving prison time under the previous law were, on average, 20 years of age, and 72% of women serving a life prison sentence for felony murder did not actually commit homicide, according to a report from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Restore Justice.

Felony murder is also known as “murder while committing a felony.” According to the Coalition’s report, many of the young people convicted under the previous law were present during the felony but were not active participants in the homicide, nor even at times privy to it. They were just part of a group committing a crime, actively or not.

If you’re facing a felony murder charge in or around Long Beach, California, or nearby in Cypress Hill or Lakewood and throughout Orange County, contact me at the McCready Law Group. As a former Los Angeles police officer, I have experience on both sides of the law and will fight aggressively for your rights and put up a solid defense to obtain the best available outcome for you.

California’s New & Old Felony Murder Rules

Senate Bill (SB) 1437, which took effect on January 1, 2019, aimed to reform the previous statute governing convictions for felony murder, or murder committed during a felony act. Reform focused largely on intent, specifically the need to prove a defendant’s intent to kill.

Under the old law, a person could be convicted of felony murder simply because a victim died during the perpetration of a felony, even if:

  • The defendant did not intend to kill a person

  • The defendant didn’t even know a homicide took place

  • The homicide was an accident

SB 1437 prevents a murder conviction against someone who “is not the actual killer, did not act with intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

SB 1437 asserts a felony murder can be charged if someone commits, attempts, or participates in a felony, and one of the following is true:

  • That person kills another person

  • That person aids or abets in the commission of murder in the first degree with intent to kill

  • That person was a “major participant” in the felony and acted with “reckless indifference to human life”

  • A peace officer was killed in the performance of his or her duties due to that person’s acts

Penalties Under SB 1437

Depending on the felony you commit that results in a homicide, you can be charged with either first- or second-degree murder. First-degree murder can be charged if the accompanying felony is:

  • Arson

  • Rape

  • Carjacking

  • Kidnapping

  • Torture

  • Burglary

  • Robbery

  • Mayhem

A first-degree murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of 25 years in state prison and a maximum of up to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A second-degree conviction carries a 15-year to life in prison sentence potential.

Resentencing Under SB 1437

Persons convicted under the pre-2019 statute can appeal for resentencing, according to a decision by the California Supreme Court in late 2020. In that case, the decision hinged on intent and how it was defined and applied legally.

Under the standard for aiding and abetting under SB 1437 — called “natural and probable causes” — a defendant may not necessarily share the other defendant’s intent but nonetheless may have assisted in the victim’s death. Using this standard, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that a defendant appealing a conviction did not possess the requisite intent and could not be found guilty of second-degree murder.

In an appellate court ruling in March 2021, the issue of relief under SB 1437 was further clarified. The court ruled that legal action for relief must start with the original trial court and not with an appellate court.

McCready Law Group: Experience You Can Trust

Felony murder, whether a first-time charge or a resentencing request, presents complex legal issues involving intent, participation, different types of felonies, and other factors. You will need the representation of an aggressive, experienced criminal defense attorney to defend yourself or to seek resentencing.

Contact me at McCready Law Group if you find yourself in either of these felony murder situations — facing charges or seeking resentencing. I will meet with you, investigate the circumstances, review court records (if applicable), and develop a solid strategy going forward to either defend you at trial or argue for your resentencing rights. I will use my extensive criminal defense experience to help you achieve the best outcome possible.

At McCready Law Group, I represent clients in Long Beach, Lakewood, Cypress Hill, Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Orange County, California.

Proudly serving Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Lakewood, Orange County, CA, and the surrounding areas, including Santa Ana and Fountain Valley. Criminal Defense and White Collar Crime Lawyer in Orange County, Domestic Violence and Manslaughter Lawyer in Orange County.