Under California’s current felony murder rule, individuals involved in serious crimes that result in someone’s death face murder charges as if they were the killer, even if they had no intent or knowledge that a person would be injured or killed, or that a weapon was present.
One Riverside County man, Shawn Khalifa, is serving a 25-to-life sentence for murdering an elderly man named Hubert Love when Khalifa was 15. But Khalifa didn’t kill Love. Khalifa didn’t even go near the man.
Instead, the teen guarded the back door before sneaking inside to steal chocolates. Khalifa ran out of Love’s house when he saw that his friends had hurt the older man. Because Khalifa was among a group of teenagers who broke into Love’s house looking for cash, and because one of those teens killed Love, Khalifa was convicted of first-degree murder under the state’s felony murder rule. He has served 14 years in prison for Love’s murder.
The Marshall Project, in collaboration with the New York Times, tells Khalifa’s story, as well as the stories of other youths ensnared by the felony murder law, including a group of teens in the Malibu area. In 1995, five high schoolers went to another teen’s house to either purchase marijuana or steal from another teen, Mike McLoren, in 1995.
McLoren, a 17-year-old who sold marijuana out of a fort in his mom’s backyard, got into a fight with the youngest of the five visitors, 15-year-old Micah Holland. Micah’s older brother Jason Holland, then 18, tried to stop McLoren, who was reportedly severely beating Micah. Jason ultimately used a 2-inch pocketknife to stab McLoren and McLoren’s 15-year-old friend Jimmy Farris, the son of an LAPD officer. Farris died of his wounds.
Jason Holland is serving a life sentence for the terrible and accidental killing of Farris. Micah Holland, and two of their friends, Brandon Hein and Anthony Miliotti, are also serving life sentences, even though they did not kill Farris, thanks to the felony murder rule. Another teen, Chris Vellardo, who remained in the car the entire time, pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Over the weekend, Governor Jerry Brown signed Sen. Nancy Skinner’s landmark SB 1437, severely restricting the scope of felony murder in CA.
Under the new law, only individuals who actually kill, who intend to kill, aid the actual murderer, or who show “reckless indifference to human life” during the course of committing a serious felony that results in murder will face murder charges. There’s one major caveat, however. If the victim is a law enforcement officer, the old felony murder rule still applies.
“Most people have no idea that under California’s current murder statute you can be charged with murder and given a life sentence even if you didn’t kill or have a direct role in a murder,” said Senator Skinner. “SB 1437 is a fair and reasonable fix to California’s unjust felony murder rule.”
The new law will also clear a path for people previously sentenced under the felony murder rule to apply for a resentencing hearing.
The bill was backed by dozens of advocacy groups, as well as the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and District Attorney George Gascón have announced they will review past felony murder cases for SB 1437 eligibility.
Opposition included the LA County District Attorney’s Office, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), and a more than 10 law enforcement unions from Los Angeles, Riverside, and the state.
The ADDA said the bill will give hundreds of inmates “early release from prison, and future defendants will be able to escape punishment for the natural and probable results of a crime in which they willingly participated.”
Moreover, according to the ADDA, SB 1437 is the product of “a twisted world where criminal defendants are now considered ‘victim.'”
Those who do not commit murder should not be punished as if they had, according to Sen. Skinner.
“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” said Skinner. “SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death. I’m proud and thankful that Governor Brown signed this historic reform into law.”
With SB 1437, California joins other states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Michigan, that have narrowed their outdated felony murder rules, Skinner added.