You might’ve heard of California’s old Felony Murder Law. The old rule said that if someone dies while you are committing a felony, then you could be charged with murder.

It didn’t matter if it was accidental or if you even knew it happened. Say you held up a convenience store for the cash in the register, and an old man who was in the store had a heart attack and died. Even though you had no intent to harm the old man, you could be charged with murder under the old rule.

The good news is that rule is no more. 

The California Assembly passed SB 1437 in 2018. This new legislation rewrote the state code around felony murder to make it less broad. It’s still quite possible to be charged with felony murder, but the new rule makes it less likely to be abused by prosecutors. 

The penalties for a felony murder conviction are the same as murder, so they are still very steep. If you are convicted of felony murder, you can face penalties as high as life in prison without parole.

What is felony murder?

Under California Penal Code 189 PC, felony murder is a specific type of murder charge that can be applied when a death occurs during the commission or attempted commission of certain felonies, regardless of whether the defendant intended to kill or directly caused the death. In other words, if someone is killed during the course of a felony, all participants in that felony may be held responsible for the death and charged with felony murder. This is what’s often referred to as the “California felony murder rule.”

For a conviction of felony murder to occur, the prosecution must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The defendant was involved in the commission or attempted commission of a qualifying felony.
  2. A death occurred during the commission or attempted commission of the qualifying felony.
  3. The death was a direct or natural consequence of the commission or attempted commission of the qualifying felony.

It is important to note that the defendant does not need to have directly caused the death or intended to kill for a felony murder charge to apply. Instead, the prosecution must only demonstrate that the death was a foreseeable result of the felony being committed.

Qualifying felonies for a felony murder charge

The list of qualifying felonies, also known as “enumerated felonies,” includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Arson
  2. Robbery
  3. Burglary
  4. Kidnapping
  5. Carjacking
  6. Train wrecking
  7. Torture
  8. Mayhem
  9. Rape
  10. Sodomy
  11. Oral copulation
  12. Lewd acts on a child
  13. Escape from a penal institution

This can apply to a lot of situations, so let’s look at three examples:

Example 1: Mike and Tony stick up a convenience store. The clerk refuses to hand the cash to Mike, so Mike tells Tony to give him his gun. Tony complies, and Mike shoots the clerk, who dies. Because Mike supplied Tony with the weapon he used to commit murder during a burglary, Tony could be guilty of felony murder.

Example 2: In the same scenario above, we find that police illegally obtained evidence that would have been critical to the case against Mike and Tony, and prosecutors are unable to secure convictions against the duo for burglary. Because they were not convicted of their involvement a felony, they cannot be convicted of felony murder. However, they could likely face another charge.

Example 3: Greg carjacks a woman at an intersection, and while fleeing, he drives over a pedestrian in the crosswalk. In this case, Greg likely acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”

What’s the difference between California’s old and new felony murder laws?

The passage of Senate Bill 1437 (SB 1437) in 2018 brought significant changes to California’s felony murder doctrine. The bill aimed to narrow the scope of the rule and limit the circumstances under which someone can be charged and convicted of felony murder. Below, we outline the key differences between the old and new felony murder rules and the changes brought about by SB 1437.

Under the old felony murder rule, any participant in a qualifying felony could be charged with murder if a death occurred during the commission or attempted commission of the felony, regardless of whether they had any direct involvement in the killing or had any intent to kill. This rule led to many individuals being held responsible for deaths they did not directly cause or foresee.

The new felony murder rule, enacted by SB 1437, limits the situations in which a person can be charged with felony murder. Under the new rule, a person can only be charged with felony murder if one of the conditions above applies.

Penalties for felony murder in California

As we mentioned above, felony murder is punished the same as murder in California. The penalties for murder in the first degree can include:

  • 25 years to life in California state prison
  • Life in prison without the possibility of parole
  • The California death penalty

We should note here that in March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on the death penalty.

Second-degree felony murder is any felony murder that doesn’t qualify as first-degree murder, and it’s punishable by 15 years to life in state prison.

Felony murder is a serious charge that can have severe consequences. However, there are also several other charges that can be related to felony murder or share similar elements. Understanding these related charges can provide a broader context for felony murder cases and help defendants, friends, and family members better navigate the legal system. Below is a list of charges that are related to felony murder:

First-degree murder

First-degree murder occurs when a person unlawfully kills another person with malice aforethought and deliberation, which means the killing was planned or premeditated. This charge is distinct from felony murder but can still apply in cases where a death occurs during the commission of a qualifying felony.

Second-degree murder

Second-degree murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought but without premeditation or deliberation. This charge can apply to cases where the defendant did not specifically intend to kill, but their actions demonstrated a conscious disregard for human life.

Voluntary manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person intentionally kills another person without lawful justification, but does so in the heat of passion or under other circumstances that might reduce their culpability. This charge can be applicable in cases where the defendant’s actions led to a death, but they did not act with the malice aforethought required for a murder charge.

Involuntary manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another person due to criminal negligence or during the commission of an unlawful act that is not a qualifying felony for felony murder. This charge might apply in cases where the defendant’s actions were not inherently dangerous but still resulted in a death.

Attempted murder

Attempted murder is the crime of intentionally trying to kill another person but failing to do so. This charge can be related to felony murder if the defendant attempts to commit murder during the commission of a qualifying felony.

Conspiracy to commit murder

Conspiracy to commit murder occurs when two or more people agree to kill another person and at least one of them takes an overt act in furtherance of the plan. This charge can be connected to felony murder if the underlying felony involves a conspiracy to commit murder.

Aiding and abetting

Aiding and abetting is the act of helping or encouraging another person to commit a crime. This charge can be related to felony murder if the defendant aids and abets someone else in committing a qualifying felony that results in a death.

Accessory after the fact

Accessory after the fact is the crime of helping a person who has committed a felony to avoid arrest, prosecution, or punishment. This charge can be related to felony murder if the defendant assists someone who has committed a qualifying felony resulting in a death.

Solicitation to commit murder

Solicitation to commit murder occurs when a person requests, encourages, or tries to persuade another person to commit murder. This charge can be connected to felony murder if the underlying felony involves soliciting someone to commit murder.

Defenses against felony murder charges in California

If you or someone you love has been charged with felony murder, the stakes are high.

However, an experienced criminal defense attorney can work with you to examine the facts of your case and develop a defense. Maybe you weren’t guilty of involvement in a felony? Maybe your involvement doesn’t qualify you as a “major participant?”

A skilled defense attorney can help you navigate these questions and defend your Constitutionally guaranteed rights to a fair defense.

If you have been charged, there is no time to waste. Robert M. Helfend is a SuperLawyers rated lawyer who has handled murder cases since he began his practice in the Los Angeles area in 1984. Call today — 800-834-6434.