The work on Senate Bill 1437, a bill that altered California’s felony murder rule, came directly from my work with people in prison who were serving life sentences for a murder they did not commit. They had been sentenced to life as accomplices under the felony murder rule.
I am not a lawyer, but I know what’s just and what’s not. The more I came to learn about the felony murder rule, the more shocking it seemed that this law existed in California.
I sought out lawyers and law professors for help in writing legislation to remedy the injustice. It was an exercise in futility. Most lawyers did not respond or were generally uninterested, until, that is, I spoke with Kate Chatfield.
Now part of my organization, Re:store Justice, Chatfield was working at the University of San Francisco Law School’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic. When I told her I wanted to change the felony murder rule, Kate responded by saying, “Okay, I’m in.”
She and her students began the process of researching legislation and case law in all states related to the felony murder rule.
She, Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, and my organization, Re:store Justice, made it a mission to get this bill passed. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on Sept. 30.
Senate Bill 1437 doesn’t abolish the felony murder rule. Rather, it clarifies that a person may only be convicted of murder if the individual personally killed, acted with an intent to kill, or acted as a “major participant” in the felony with “reckless indifference to human life.”
Under this bill, prosecutors no longer will be able to substitute the intent to commit a crime for the intent to commit murder.
It also provides a means for resentencing for people who did not actually commit the homicide or act with the intent to kill, but nevertheless were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
I witnessed firsthand the impact this new law will have on incarcerated individuals and their families when Neko Wilson was released after being in jail for nine years. He did not commit murder and was not present at the robbery that resulted in the death of two people.
But under the old felony murder rule, his intent to commit a robbery was enough to charge him with first-degree murder and initially the death penalty. Once the law passed, the Fresno County District Attorney’s office realized that, based on the facts, Wilson did not act as a major participant with reckless indifference to human life. The District Attorney’s office dismissed the murder charge. Wilson accepted responsibility for his role in the robbery and received a sentence of nine years of incarceration. Because he had already served that time in prison, he was released.
Opponents to SB 1437 claimed that prosecutors will not be able to charge people with murder. This is simply not true. The day after Wilson was released, a jury convicted two young men in Sacramento under the felony murder rule and additionally charged them with “special circumstances” which resulted in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Setting aside the moral repugnance of an LWOP sentence, the facts in this case are different.
Under SB 1437, juries are asked to find whether the individual accused aided in the killing, had an intent to kill, or was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life. In this case, the jury found that the non-killer was just as culpable as the other defendant.
These two recent examples reveal that SB 1437 allows prosecutors and juries to decide cases based on an assessment of a defendant’s actions and intent.
At Re:store Justice, we are focused on the implementation of SB 1437. We have drafted a petition that is available for free on our website and will hold training statewide for families and lawyers who can aid in this effort. The passage of the legislation is an important step toward a more just system.
Alexandra Mallick is executive director of Re:store Justice in Oakland, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.