Impact of New California Felony-Murder Law on Pending and Future Cases

Criminal Law Books

Effective January 1, 2019, a new California felony-murder law substantially changes the murder laws that apply when a person dies during the commission of a felony.  The law allows some individuals sentenced under prior felony-murder law to get resentenced or even to get their sentence vacated in certain situations.  The change in the law significantly impacts pending felony-murder cases, as well as future cases.

The new law does not completely eliminate the felony-murder rule.  It does make significant changes in how the rule applies to accomplice responsibility for homicide. 

The following discussion provides a general overview of the new law.  How the new standards affect a specific case depends entirely on the facts and circumstances of the case.  Anyone with concerns about the impact of the law on an individual case should discuss the case with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Provisions of the New California Felony-Murder Law

Under prior law, a person could be convicted of murder if a victim died during commission of certain felonies, even if the person did not kill the victim and did not intend to kill.  In adopting the new law, the legislature specifically stated that changes were necessary “to more equitably sentence offenders in accordance with their involvement in homicides.” 

The legislature explained further that:

It is necessary to amend the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder, to ensure that murder liability is not imposed on a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.  

Accordingly, the new law amended Section 189 of the Penal Code, which sets forth the new felony-murder rule and provides in part:

(e) A participant in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a felony … in which a death occurs is liable for murder only if one of the following is proven:

(1) The person was the actual killer.

(2) The person was not the actual killer, but with the intent to kill, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer in the commission of murder in the first degree.

(3) The person was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life … .

Under this new felony-murder rule, one of the following must be true for a person to be charged with murder:

  • The person was the actual killer;
  • The person assisted the killing and had the intent to kill;
  • The person was a major participant in the felony and acted with reckless disregard for human life; or
  • The victim was a peace officer performing his or her duties.

Applicability of New California Felony-Murder Rules

The law provides a process for defendants sentenced under the prior law to petition the court to vacate their conviction or get re-sentenced.  Individuals in that situation should contact an attorney for advice on whether the new standards apply to their case.

In addition, California court decisions establish that a new law reducing punishment applies automatically to cases that are not final when the law takes effect.  As such, the new felony-murder rules represent a substantial change in the standards that apply to pending (and future) felony-murder situations. 

Defenses to a Felony-Murder Charge Under the New Rule

While the new law does not completely eliminate the felony-murder rule in California, it does substantially change the standards that apply in potential felony-murder situations.  Under the new standard, an experienced criminal defense attorney can use a number of different strategies in defending against a felony-murder charge.  The right strategy in a specific case depends on the facts and circumstances of the situation.

Available defenses may include demonstrating that the accused person:

  • Had no intent to kill
  • Did not commit or attempt to commit the felony
  • Did not assist in the killing
  • Was not a major participant in the felony

Each potential defense will turn on specific evidence relating to the accused person’s conduct prior to and during the commission or attempted commission of the crime.  Other provisions of the California Penal Code and court interpretations of statutes also come into play in interpreting or defining the terms in the statute.

The new law and rules utilize new terminology in felony-murder cases.  The courts will apply and interpret the provisions of the law on a case-by-case basis.  If you or a family member face a possible felony-murder charge or have a pending case involving a felony-murder charge, it is essential to be represented by an experienced, skillful criminal defense attorney who knows the new law and can aggressively assert a defense.

Schedule a Free Consultation With a San Mateo Certified Criminal Law Specialist

San Mateo criminal defense attorney Jessica Agnich is a criminal law specialist certified by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.  Jessica’s experience defending clients spans more than a decade.  She represents clients in a full range of types of offenses, including murder, attempted murder, and homicide.

Regardless of whether your case involves issues relating to the new California felony-murder law, Jessica will draw on her extensive experience and skill to aggressively defend you against criminal charges.  Located in Redwood City, the Law Office of Jessica Agnich serves clients throughout San Mateo County. Jessica also handles select matters elsewhere in the Bay Area and Northern California.

Your initial consultation is free.  To speak with Jessica about your case, call 650.260.4105 or email jla@agnichlaw.com.

Publication date: March 21st, 2019
Categories: Homicide Charges