In California, approximately 800 prisoners incarcerated for murder may soon be set free. Last fall, California legislature, joined by then-Governor Jerry Brown, passed SB 1437, a bill co-sponsored by Democratic State Senator Nancy Skinner and Republican State Senator John Anderson. This law significantly modifies California’s felony murder rule, and allows for retroactive resentencing.

The law went into effect on January 1, 2019. As a result, earlier this week, Adnan Khan, sentenced to 25 years to life under the felony murder rule, was released for time served. Khan’s plight was the impetus behind the senate bill, and he was the first to be released under the new law.

Felony Murder: When Murderers Aren’t Involved in Killing

California is one of many states that has a felony murder rule. According to these laws, a suspect can be charged with first degree murder if any death, even an accidental one, results from the commission of certain violent felonies, including arson, burglary, robbery, kidnapping, and rape.

In Khan’s case, when he was 19 years old and homeless, he and some other people planned to rob their pot dealer, Kevin McNut. During the robbery, one of Khan’s fellow robbers, Rick Page, fatally stabbed McNut in a fit of rage, stemming from Page’s mental illness. Khan testified that he didn’t even know Page had brought a knife to the robbery. Ultimately, in 2004, Page was sentenced to 15 years to life for McNut’s murder, and Khan was sentenced to 25 years to life.

California’s New Felony Murder Rule

SB 1437 changes some parts of the felony murder rule, but does leave other parts intact. Frankly, it will be up to the courts to decide how to interpret the new felony murder rule. To be guilty of first or second degree murder, the suspect has to act with malice. When someone was charged with felony murder, the malice for the underlying violent crime was presumed, or imputed, to also be malice for the murder. But under the new law, that’s not the case. In order to be convicted of either first or second degree murder under the new felony murder rule, the suspect needs to have had committed the murder, or “aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer.”

If it sounds like there’s a bit of wiggle room here, you’re right! According to Kate Chatfield, who was Khan’s resentencing attorney and a major supporter of the new law, approximately 800 prisoners may be eligible for release under this new law. However, not all 800 will get a resentencing hearing. Only those that can prove that they weren’t directly participating in the murder can ask for a resentencing. And even then, their murder conviction has to lie in a certain era of their appeals process. According to Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office, that number should probably be closer to 100 after all the cases are sorted through.

Retroactive Element Quite Controversial

The “retroactive” element of this new law is very unique, and controversial. Critics, such as California’s prosecutors’ association, believe the retroactive element will cause “potentially disastrous and costly problems.” Felony murder convictions in California are not tracked or labeled separately from murder convictions, which means that it could be arduous to even decide who in prison can be eligible for resentencing. In fact, the state anticipates spending millions of dollars on reviewing, processing, and administering resentencing requests. However, proponents of retroactivity believe you can’t put a price on justice. But if forced to, they claim that it costs $80,000 per year to incarcerate someone, and if some of these felony murderers are released, the state will actually save money.

If you or someone you love feels that they are eligible for resentencing under the new felony murder law, contact a criminal defense attorney. An experienced lawyer will be able to determine if criminal substantive and procedural law allows for resentencing in your case, and can also help to get your case in line early. With so much freedom at stake and so many cases to review, the sooner you can get yours in front of a judge, the better.

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