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State Senator Nancy Skinner. (Photo: SD09.senate.ca.gov)

Accomplice Liability For Felony Murder Fades

Senator Skinner Looks To Lighten Punishment for Murder Accomplices

By Sean Brown, August 31, 2018 10:25 am

California State Capitol (Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

After just barely fleeting off the Assembly floor late last night with the minimum 41 votes needed for passage, today the Senate in return passed the controversial measure to amend California’s felony murder rule.

California’s federal murder rule makes an individual involved in the commission of certain felonies guilty of murder if someone is killed during the act of that felony. The rule would apply even if the individual had no knowledge or intent a killing was going to happen or if the killing was accidental.

Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) wants a controversial change. SB 1437 “seeks to restore proportional responsibility in the application of California’s murder statute reserving the harshest punishments for those who intentionally planned or actually committed the killing” says Skinner.

“Most people have no idea that you can be charged with murder and given a life sentence even if you didn’t kill anyone,” says Senator Skinner.

Her proposal would limit liability for individuals who participated in the felony “unless the person was the actual killer or 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; and, the individual was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

The bill also provides an exception for a defendant to be convicted of first degree murder if the victim is a peace officer who was killed in the course of duty.

In a major move, Skinner’s proposal would also provide a means of vacating the conviction and resentencing of a defendant under the new rules. Sponsored by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and 6 other co-sponsors, the bill is supported by ACLU and nearly 40 other organizations while the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, and over a dozen law enforcement agencies, oppose to the measure.

In the United States there are 46 states that have some form of a felony murder rule. In 24 of those states, including California, the punishment can be death. Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio have either narrowed the scope or eliminated the felony murder rule.

The bill will now head to the Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for final signature. He has yet to indicate if he will sign or veto the bill.

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