On Tuesday, a bill that would remove both the death penalty and life without parole sentences for those convicted of first degree murder under special circumstances was introduced to the Senate.
Senate Bill 300, authored by Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), would specifically repeal the death and life in prison without parole sentences for those convicted of first degree murder if they had not actually killed, but instead “but acted with reckless indifference for human life as a major participant in certain specified violent felonies.” The bill would also allow those convicted of the charge but did not actually kill to petition the court for re-sentencing and to recall the previous life without parole or death sentence.
According to the current law, installed by the passage of Proposition 115 in 1990, those who were convicted of first degree murder and had not actually killed, but did act with reckless indifference to human life and was a major participant in crimes around the murder, or had aided, abetted, assisted, or just generally helped with the felony tied to the murder, can get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Senator Cortese wrote SB 300 because of the large number of California inmates, currently estimated at 5,100 by the Felony Murder Elimination Project, who have life without parole sentences but did not commit first-degree murder, simply did not kill or intend to kill people in those situations. Cortese also noted that, according to current law, a sentence like that is required in current cases.
“Our felony murder laws are emblematic of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today,” Senator Cortese said on Tuesday. “Californians may not realize that people who did not commit murder are being charged for murder and are being given harsher punishments than those who did.”
“Sentencing someone to die in prison by death penalty or without parole, is virtually unheard of in much of the world. California not only regularly imposes these sentences but requires judges to impose life without the possibility of parole for certain categories of offenses even on defendants who did not kill or intend a person to be killed.”
While Cortese’s bill has been gaining supporters, there are plenty opposing SB 300.
“They may not have killed the person, but they still helped with crimes around the murder, willingly,” former Sheriff Deputy Richard Rowe explained to the Globe. “Say there is a robbery being committed by three people and one of them kills the homeowner, and they are soon caught and brought in. Shouldn’t the other two be locked up for life for helping the one who murdered. There are so many variables. Helping drive the guy to or from the scene of the crime, helping move the body, selling stolen goods when they belonged to the person they murdered. So many. They may not have pulled the trigger, but, at the very least, they helped make it easier.”
“And right now it’s already a case by case basis. This bill, which would go against the wishes of California voters from years ago, would let many off the hook for helping people take a life, even if it was unintended. They still chose everything, on their own accord, to be there under those circumstances when someone was killed, and didn’t do anything against the murderer in the process, like trying to stop them or calling the police or something. No, they stuck by them while already committing a felony.
“People always talk about the family of the guy who was sent to prison under circumstances like these. Why don’t we get some balance and actually ask the victims family what they think? How dare the Senator be so callous like this, honestly.”
SB 300 is expected to be heard in committee sometime after March 6th.