In 1990, California voters approved a ballot measure allowing prosecutors to charge a person accused of a murder that occurred during the commission of another felony with first-degree murder. The underlying crime made the murder one with “special circumstances.” It’s known as the “felony murder” or “special circumstances” rule.
The crime carries a penalty of life in prison without parole or the death penalty. (California has a moratorium on the death penalty.)
The law can – and has – been used to sentence people who were accomplices (sometimes unwittingly) to crimes, but not involved in an ensuing murder. Some had no idea anyone intended to commit murder. The law has disproportionately affected defendants of color (many of them young) and women – particularly women who are domestic violence or sex trafficking victims.
If new legislation, known as the Sentencing Reform Act, succeeds, judges would be given more sentencing discretion for those involved in the underlying crime(s) but not the murder.
Strong feelings on both sides
The proposed legislation has brought strong opposition from victims’ rights groups and survivors of murder victims as well as the California District Attorneys Association. Among those advocating for it are people whose felony murder sentences were commuted by former Gov. Jerry Brown and who can attest to how they found themselves in the circumstances that led to a felony murder charge.
The bill, which is currently in the California Senate, would not be retroactive or allow for resentencing. However, it would make sentencing more fair going forward if it passes both houses and is signed into law – which could be some ways off – if it happens.
If you were involved in a violent crime, drug crime or other offense with others that resulted in a murder for which you had no responsibility, it’s crucial to seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can work to mitigate the consequences.