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

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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 felony murder 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’ in California?

Felony murder happens when:

  1. You commit, attempt or participate in a felony. In order to convict you of felony murder, the court must also convict you of your role in the felony. 
  2. You do one of the following:
    1. You kill a person
    2. You aid and abet in the commission of murder in the first degree with intent to kill. California law sets out a list of felonies where, if someone is murdered during the commission of one, it qualifies as murder in the first degree. More on this below.
    3. You were a “major participant” in the crime and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.” Juries will be asked to consider your role in the killing. Were you there? Did you supply a weapon?  
    4. A peace officer was killed in performance of their duties because of your actions.

As we mentioned above, according to California Penal Code 189 PC, a murder will be labeled as first-degree murder if it happens in the course of one of these felonies:

  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Kidnapping
  • Forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object
  • Lewd acts with a minor
  • Mayhem
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Sodomy
  • Torture

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.”

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.

Defenses against ‘Felony murder’ charges in California

“Robert Helfend is one of the best criminal defense attorneys I’ve ever worked with. He was so knowledgeable, and always made sure I understood everything every step of the way. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who wants an understanding, caring, and truly helpful lawyer.” Pat, CA

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.

What is ‘Felony murder’ in California?

Felony murder happens when:
1) You commit, attempt or participate in a felony. In order to convict you of felony murder, the court must also convict you of your role in the felony. 
2) You do one of the following:
a) You kill a person
b) You aid and abet in the commission of murder in the first degree with intent to kill. California law sets out a list of felonies where, if someone is murdered during the commission of one, it qualifies as murder in the first degree. More on this below.
c) You were a “major participant” in the crime and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.” Juries will be asked to consider your role in the killing. Were you there? Did you supply a weapon?  
d) A peace officer was killed in performance of their duties because of your actions.