Felony Murder Rule
Murder is the most serious form of intentional killing according to the California Penal Code. When an individual harbors the intent to kill with malice aforethought and with no legal justification or excuse, it is murder. A murder that takes place during the commission of a felony may be charged as felony murder, provided that certain elements are met. San Bernardino and Riverside County homicide attorney Gregory H. Comings represents those accused of murder and other violent crimes. If you or someone close to you is facing serious charges or investigation for murder, we can provide clear and effective legal advocacy.California Felony Murder Rule Under Senate Bill 1457
In 2018, a new law changed the felony murder rule in California. Pursuant to Senate Bill 1437, the prosecution must now generally show that the defendant had a greater role in the victim’s death. Under the prior felony murder rule, a defendant could be convicted if, while a felony was being carried out, a victim died. If the killing was accidental or the defendant did not intend to kill, they could still be charged with felony murder. The new law requires the following:
- The defendant killed a person;
- The defendant abetted or aided in a first degree murder and has the intention to kill;
- The defendant was a “major participant” in a felony, acting with “reckless indifference to human life;” or,
- Due to the defendant’s conduct, a peace officer died while performing their duties.
Every felony has underlying elements that the prosecution must prove in order to convict the defendant of the crime. For felony murder to apply, there must be proof that a felony occurred, or was attempted. An attempt to commit a crime occurs when a defendant intends to commit a certain felony and performs a direct act aimed at committing that crime.
Aiding and abetting in the murder of a victim can also lead to felony murder charges. This means that even if the defendant did not murder anyone, they can be guilty under the felony murder rule. The facts will determine whether the defendant was helping, or was “in on” the crime. Additionally, a defendant must aid and abet with the specific intent to kill, which requires malice aforethought. California law defines malice aforethought as having wanton disregard for human life, or acting in a way that has a high probability of leading to death.
Participating in a felony may be enough for someone to be accused of felony murder. Determining if defendant was a significant participant under the law depends on the facts of the case, including factors such as the defendant’s role in planning the crime, whether the defendant was physically at the place where the murder occurred, and whether the defendant supplied weapons for the crime.
A person who commits a murder while carrying out any of the felony offenses listed under California Penal Code section 189 may be charged with first-degree felony murder. These include rape, robbery, kidnapping, and torture, and can carry a sentence of 25 years in prison. Second-degree felony murder may apply to any felony murder that does not qualify as first-degree, and can result in up to 15 years in prison.Legal Defenses That May Apply to Reduce or Dismiss Felony Murder Charges
The most common legal defenses to felony murder charges are that a felony was not committed, that the defendant lacked the intention to kill, and that the accused was not a significant participant. An actual felony must have been committed, participated in, or attempted for an individual to be charged with felony murder. Further, every element of the felony must be proven by the prosecuting attorney as to the underlying felony and the felony murder.
If the defendant did not harbor the intent to kill, a felony murder charge cannot stand. The facts of the case must demonstrate this intent, and the defendant must have exhibited malice aforethought. Finally, if the defendant was not a major participant in the underlying felony, they may have a defense to felony murder. The circumstances may indicate that in fact, the defendant was not a major participant in the felony.Homicide Attorney Serving San Bernardino and Riverside Counties
If you are facing the serious consequences of a murder or manslaughter charge, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can assist you in protecting your rights. Gregory H. Comings, together with the team at the Law Offices of Gregory H. Comings, can work to help you build a legal defense. Our office can represent people in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Moreno Valley, Temecula, Redlands, Indio, Highland, and throughout Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Contact us online by phone at (951) 686-3457 to learn more.