Until 2019, countless of inmates in California had been serving unjustly long sentences for murder convictions, even though they never killed, attempted to kill, or intended for a person to die. Fortunately, as part of the ongoing criminal justice reform in California, in 2017, the state legislature acknowledged the need for more equitable sentencing of offenders and determined that reform in the laws is necessary to reflect one of the basic principles of the law and of equity, that a person should be punished for his o her actions based on their own level of individual culpability.
As a result of their findings, the California Legislature concluded that the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder, have to be amended, and on September 30, 2018, the former California Governor Jerry Brown, signed into law SB 1437, which was codified as Penal Code §1170.95. In short, SB 1437 changes Penal Code §§188 and 189 by limiting the number of people that can be convicted of felony murder, and by effectively eliminating the role of the natural and probable consequences doctrine in murder cases.
Prior to SB 1437, a person could have been convicted of felony murder if he or she participated in or aided in the commission of a felony and a victim died during or as a result of the felony. Under the new law, in order for someone to be convicted of felony murder, he or she has to participate or attempt to participate in a felony in which a death occurs and:
- The person is the actual killer;
- The person acted with the intent to kill, by, for example, aided, abetted, induced, or assisted the actual killer in killing the victim;
- The person was a “major participant” in the felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life; or
- The victim was a police officer who was killed on the job, and the defendant “knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties.”
Notably, SB 1437 is retroactive, which allows defendants that have been convicted under the old rule to petition the court to have their murder convictions vacated and their sentences recalled.
SB 1437 spells out in detail the procedure for petitioning and resentencing. According to the new law, a person is eligible to have their sentence reduced if he or she meets all three conditions below:
- Defendant was prosecuted for murder under a theory of felony murder or murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine;
- Defendant was convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder following a trial, or, accepted such charges as a plea offer; and
- Defendant could not be convicted of murder under the new felony murder law.
In order to have their sentences reconsidered, defendants have to file a petition with the court that sentenced them and serve a copy of the petition on the district attorney, and on the counsel who represented them at trial. In addition to a detailed declaration spelling out the reason for eligibility of relief under the new law, the petition has to include the case number and the year of conviction, and whether the petitioner is requesting the appointment of counsel.
After the petition is filed, the court will hold a prima facie hearing. If the court finds that the petitioner meets the basic criteria for relief, the court will issue an order to show cause. At the order to show cause hearing, the burden of proof will shift to the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt, that the petitioner is guilty of murder under the revised laws, i.e. that during the commission of a crime, the person intended to kill or was a major participant and acted with reckless indifference to human life. If the prosecution is unable to meet its burden of proof, then the new law requires the court to vacate the prior conviction and any allegations and enhancements attached to it, and to resentence the defendant on the remaining charges.
Notably, during the hearing, the court is allowed to hear not only evidence previously admitted, but also new or additional evidence. Furthermore, if there was a prior determination by a judge or a jury that the petitioner did not act with reckless disregard for human life or was not a major participant in the underlying felony, then the court is required to vacate the conviction and resentence the petitioner without the need for a hearing.
While advocates of criminal justice reform in California welcomed SB 1437, the law overlooked a substantial number of inmates, who had been convicted of manslaughter or attempted murder under the old theories, and who were left ineligible to petition for resentencing under SB 1437. However, in 2021, the California legislature rectified that problem by enacting SB 775, which came into effect on January 1, 2022, and provided for people who are serving sentences for attempted murder and manslaughter under felony murder theories to petition the court for sentence reduction.
A successful resentencing petition requires a diligent and skillful representation. At the Justice Firm, we understand the value of a solid attorney-client relationship, and are ready to work with you or your loved ones to achieve the best outcome possible.
If you believe you are eligible, or want to know whether you could potentially qualify to have your murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter charges vacated, our highly skilled and reliable attorneys are here to help and to answer any questions you might have. If you or a loved one has questions about this law, or other post-conviction matters, contact our California appeals attorneys today for a case evaluation locally at (310) 914-2444 or at our Toll-Free number at (866) 695-6714, or click here.