Bill That Would Reform Felony Murder Special Circumstance Law in California Moves Forward

By David M. Greenwald

Sacramento, CA – In California one can face life without parole (LWOP) if one is convicted of murder with special circumstances, even if the person did not kill anyone nor intend for anyone to die.

A few years ago SB 1437 changed the law on felony murder to limit who can face murder charges when they were not the actual killer and did not participate heavily in the underlying crime.

Now SB 300, The Sentencing Reform Act of 2021, which last week passed the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations authored by Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) and co-authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Senator Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco), and Senator Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) would reform California’s “felony murder special circumstance” law.

Senator Cortese, who represents much of Santa Clara County, spoke during a press conference held by the bill co-authors on Monday.

He said that this would reform the unjust felony murder law, “a law that currently allows for unwitting accomplices, those who did not kill or intend to kill, to receive the harshest punishments, the sentence of death by execution or death by incarceration which is life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

The bill would also provide those currently serving a life sentence an avenue for re-sentencing “if they did directly perpetrate a death, did not aid or abet a killing, and had no intent to kill, this bill has the power to provide a lifeline to hundreds of inmates in California as well as their families.”

He noted that it is estimated that 130 persons are sentenced to die in our state prisons “for a crime they did not commit.”

The law would also remove the mandatory minimum of LWOP for felony murder convictions with special circumstances and restore discretion to the judges in imposing sentences.

“We are trying once against to restore judicial discretion,” Cortese said.

Senator Scott Wiener noted, “The felony murder rule is just so obscenely broad in California.”

He lauded Nancy Skinner’s SB 1437 for removing a lot of this conduct where individuals who are not involved in the murder could be sentenced to life in prison outside of the realm of felony murder.

“SB 300 is the next big step in terms of the punishment and the sentencing in terms of people who technically committed felony murder but did not actually commit violence against anyone and did not intend for anyone to die,” he said.  “They should not be treated the same way we treat the people who did have that intent or that level of participation.  They should not be subjected to life or potentially Capital Punishment.”

Senator Nancy Skinner said that SB 1437 was the bill that reformed California’s “very unfair and unjust and outdated felony murder rule.”  She said, “What 1437 did was clarify that a murder conviction can only take place if a person actually had a role in the death and was not just a bystander.

“You should not be convicted of murder if you did not murder,” said Senator Skinner. “About 72% of women serving life under the felony murder rule did not commit murder.”

SB 300 addresses aspects that were not addressed in 1437, she said.  “It clarifies that the person must have an intent to kill in order to be sentenced to life without parole or sentenced to death.

“It also allows the judge to strike the special circumstance charge,” she said, allowing the judge to determine if the person is eligible under SB 1437.

Senator Sydney Kamlager called current laws “blatantly racist and anti-Youth protocols.

“As a society, we are fixated on maximum punishment and we thrive on mass confusion,” Senator Kamlager said.

She explained that prosecutors thrive on confusing the jurors.  She noted, if they find the chief charge to be true—murder—they are then asked to determine whether the special circumstance is true as well.

“That second question is a yes or no question,” Kamlager explained.  “Inherently, juries get confused because it lowers the burden of proof for proving the special circumstances.

“You end up having a majority of Black and Brown folks, in prison, in lifetime sentences because of it,” she said.  “The felony murder special circumstance law represents some of the most discriminatory tendencies of our criminal legal system. It is overwhelmingly used against people of color with nearly 70 percent of those sentenced to life without parole being Black or Latino.”

“There are so many women in prison serving with life without parole, sentenced for someone else’s violence,” says Tammy Cooper Garvin, a survivor of domestic violence and human trafficking, who was charged as an accomplice in a felony murder case for a crime that her abuser committed. “I had no intent to hurt anybody or kill anybody. I went into the building and realized he killed a man. Terrified and completely traumatized, I ran from the scene with him. Me and my abuser were charged with murder.

“Facing trial, my abuser threatened to kill me and my father if we testified against him. I believed him because I had seen someone die at his hands. Even though my abuser admitted to my father that he committed the murder, the police botched the handling of the evidence,” she said. In fear for their lives, Tammy and her father were unable to testify. Her abuser was acquitted and went free, while Tammy was sentenced with LWOP.

“My son, Tony, was charged and convicted of Felony Murder Special Circumstances. He did not kill anyone; he did not have any intent to kill anyone—the plan was just to go and pick up a laptop computer. He and the other two are now serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole,” said Joanne Scheer, Founder of Felony Murder Elimination Project , in a recent interview with The Appeal. “I want to be very clear when I say that Life Without Parole is a death sentence… There’s no chance to go before the parole board—the only way you’re getting out of prison is in a casket, and that’s it.”

Tony’s story is powerful, but unfortunately not exceptional. On average, 130 people a year in California are sentenced to die in prison for a crime they did not commit. Brian Mason was 18 when he was sentenced to mandatory life in prison for a murder he did not commit. His poignant story was laid out eloquently in a video created by the coalition in support of SB 300.

Susan Bustamante was released from prison in 2018 after serving 31 years of a life without parole sentence. Susan was convicted for someone else’s actions in the context of surviving domestic violence. Her sentence was commuted by Governor Brown in 2017 and she was granted parole in 2018.

“Having the extreme sentence of LWOP due to our abusers, sex trafficking, being forced to commit their crimes because of their abusive partners was horrific,” Bustamante said at today’s conference when speaking about the population of women convicted of felony murder serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Susan became an original member of “Convicted Women Against Abuse” in prison.

“We have to change the laws that are unjust and serve only to bring future trauma to families and communities,” said Latonya Stewart. Steward has two sons, one was lost to gun violence, the other is serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. Stewart and Aaron, her incarcerated son, speak together on the need for restorative justice, for safety in our communities and for the redemption capable in all of us.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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