Criminal justice reform has many faces. Sometimes it involves making changes to procedures, and other times it involves amending the actual law.
California Penal Code 1170.95 is a response to a change in the felony murder law in California. It empowers anyone with a felony murder conviction to reassess their case and potentially revise their sentence.
To understand the extent of this law, you need to first be clear on the felony murder laws prior to the changes and how lawmakers altered them.
Understanding the Unique Felony Murder Charge
The felony murder charge was a very different type of situation than other criminal charges. Under this law, it automatically made anyone participating in felony activity liable for any death occurring during the incident.
It did not matter who died, how they died or who directly caused the death. Anyone charged with a felony in the incident would face felony murder charges.
For example, if you and a friend robbed a gas station at gunpoint and your friend decided to kill the store clerk, you would also be liable for the death. It would not matter if you had prior knowledge that your friend intended to do this or if it was a split-second decision he made all on his own. Simply being present and committing a felony act, armed robbery, while the murder occurred would allow prosecutors to charge you with felony murder.
The law, as it stood, led to high incarceration rates. It meant many people were sitting behind bars for decades on a murder charge when they did not kill anyone.
The fact that you could face this charge without committing the actual crime was what made it so unique.
Tightening the Definition of Felony Murder
In 2018, the California legislature made a decision to change the felony murder law. The changes tightened it up and brought it more in line with other criminal charges.
Lawmakers were driven to make changes to help reduce prison populations. The need for revision of the law also became apparent because many of those in prison for felony murder were under the age of 20, facing spending the majority of their lives behind bars for a crime they did not commit.
Furthermore, California was following the lead of a number of other states who made a similar change to their felony murder laws as part of sweeping criminal justice reform. They were adhering to the push to reserve the harshest punishments for those directly responsible for a murder.
Lawmakers removed the parts of the law that made anyone involved culpable for a death during the commission of a felony. This change now means that to face a felony murder charge, you need to be either the person who killed the victim or have helped with the murder.
It is still possible to face this charge and not be the one who committed the murder or assisted with it in two specific cases. First, if you were committing a felony and your actions were reckless to the point that you knew what you were doing could lead to someone’s death, then you are still liable under this law. Second, if the victim is a law enforcement officer who was on duty at the time, then everyone present still faces felony murder charges.
Essentially, the changes in the law now mean that you need to participate in the events directly leading to the death in most cases to face this criminal charge. In addition, when the governor signed the changes into law, it became effective retroactively, which could give many a chance to appeal their felony murder convictions.
Learning Your Rights Under California Penal Code 1170.95
This is where California Penal Code 1170.95 comes into the picture. This statute states that if you have a felony murder conviction under the old law but if tried under the new law, a jury or judge would not have convicted you, then you can petition the court for resentencing.
In most cases, the original conviction was under the “natural and probable consequences” theory. This theory states that you assisted with a felony in which someone you were with killed someone else, and the murder was a result of the felony occurring.
Under the new felony murder law, this theory doesn’t hold up. Your mere presence on the scene of the murder is no longer enough to make you guilty of the crime.
Requesting Resentencing Under California 1170.95
You will need to create a petition, which is a legal document that explains why you believe you deserve a new sentence in your case. Your petition must contain specific information, including your case number and the year of your conviction. It is a good idea to work with a murder defense attorney experienced with criminal appeals to file the petition.
A lawyer is best able to ensure the petition includes the proper information and that filing occurs according to the law. This prevents delays or the potential the court will throw out your request without consideration due to an administrative issue.
If the court accepts your request, it will set a new hearing date. At the hearing, the court will further investigate your case as it compares to the new law. The prosecution may only stop the resentencing if it can prove you do not fit the new boundaries under the law to hold no accountability for the murder.
If the court finds the new law applies to your case, it will vacate your murder conviction and resentence you only on the remaining charges.
Do note that California Penal Code 1170.95 applies to all felony murder cases, even if you accepted a plea deal and did not have a sentence based on a trial.
Your Next Move
If you think you are eligible under California Penal Code 1170.95, then please contact Stein & Marcus. Our attorneys are available to consult with you on your case. Call us at (562) 512-7030 or visit our website to talk to a lawyer today.
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