As of Jan. 1 of this year, a new California law went into effect that changes the legal landscape for violent crimes. Senate Bill 1437 scaled back the existing felony murder rule. This legislation made important changes to the state’s criminal law that affect both existing prisoners and future prosecutions.
The old felony murder rule allowed someone who committed a felony to be convicted of first-degree murder if a victim died during the act, regardless of whether the accused caused or intended the death. A real life example described in the Los Angeles Times is that of Bobby Garcia, who faced first-degree murder for a death that occurred during a robbery in which Garcia was involved. Garcia said he did not commit the murder, nor did he know it took place until told later at the police station. However, he accepted a plea deal of 25 years to avoid possible life imprisonment.
Under the new law, a person may only be convicted of first-degree homicide after the state establishes proof of intent to commit murder. This standard is more consistent with how other crimes are charged in California. According to the same LA Times article, a survey in 2018 showed a disproportionate affect on women, 72 percent of which were serving life for felony murder without having killed anyone. The old law primarily affected people under the age of 20.
The new SB 1437 could affect certain current prisoners who petition for reduced sentences. It also means shorter potential sentences in some felony cases. While there were opponents to the change, the legislation had bipartisan support as a more modern and just approach to criminal law.