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Understanding Changes to California’s Felony Murder Law

Felony murder has a different legal standard than murder. Under California law, murder is the “unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought.” Felony murder, on the other hand, is charged for deaths that occur during the commission of a felony.

Previously, the California felony murder law allowed defendants to be convicted of first-degree murder if a victim died during the commission of a felony. The law applied even if the defendant did not intend to kill the victim or was unaware of the victim’s death. For example, if a defendant robbed a restaurant with a gun, and an employee, frightened by the sight of the gun, had a heart attack and died, the defendant would be charged with first-degree murder.

However, on January 1, 2019, an amendment to the law changed how felony murder is charged in California. A defendant can be charged with felony murder if:

  • He was the actual killer.
  • He wasn’t the actual killer but helped the killer commit the act and had the intent to kill.
  • He had a major role in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life during the felony.

This means that accomplices such as look-outs and drivers in robbery cases are no longer liable for first-degree murder, via the felony murder rule, if a death occurs during the course of a felony as long as the accomplice didn’t act with reckless indifference to human life. The law does not apply when the victim is an on-duty law enforcement officer, however.

The revised law follows a criminal justice policy in California that aims to reduce the number of prisoners in California prisons, give prisoners a better chance of early release, and provide services to better prepare them to enter society upon release. Similar changes to felony murder laws have been made in Arkansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan.

If you’ve been charged with felony murder in California, it’s essential you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Amber Gordon, Attorney at Law represents defendants in Hollywood and throughout the greater Los Angeles metro area on murder and other serious charges. Call us at 310-773-3980 or contact us online to arrange a consultation at our Los Angeles office.

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