Bill in California’s Legislature Could Limit State Felony Murder Prosecutions

California’s felony murder rule may soon be curtailed, if a bill in the state legislature gets approved. On the recommendation of the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, the bill would limit murder prosecutions to individuals who intended to kill, did kill, or whose behavior amounted to reckless indifference to human life. The California State Senate has already passed the bill.

California’s current felony murder doctrine dictates that individuals involved in specific situations that constitute a serious felony leading to another person’s death must face the same consequences as the killer, even if the individual did not intend to kill anyone. In some instances, the individual in question did not commit murder or realize a murder had even occurred but were still charged and handed the same sentence as the actual murderer.

Since the 1960s, California state judges have referred to the state’s felony murder rule as “barbaric,” and case holdings support this view. Additionally, the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata held that California had violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment due to its overcrowded prison system. The felony murder rule also disproportionally affects people of color and women, according to a survey from the Felony Murder Elimination Project.

45 U.S. states still preserve some form of the felony murder rule. 24 states allow for a death penalty sentence in such cases. Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio have abolished the rule, either via legislation or court decisions. Pennsylvania’s Legislature is currently in the process of evaluating a bill to limit the rule in its own state. Time will tell if the bill is approved in California.

Additional Reading

California Considering End to Felony Murder Rule, ABA Journal, July 5, 2018

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