California's Old Felony Murder Law
The main difference between California's new felony murder law and the old law relates to the issue of intent.
Under California's old felony murder law, a person could get convicted of felony murder simply if a victim died during the commission of a felony. This was true even if:
The defendant did not intend to kill a person;
The defendant did not know a homicide took place; and,
The killing was an accident.
The New Legal Definition of Felony Murder in California
California Senate Bill 1437 was signed into law on September 30, 2018. The bill sets forth California's new laws on the crime of felony murder. Under SB 1437, the new felony murder rule only applies when a defendant: a person commits felony murder, and therefore is liable for murder, when he commits, attempts, or participates in a felony; and, one of the following is true:
He kills a person;
He aides or abets in the commission of murder in the first degree with an intent to kill;
He was a “major participant” in the felony and acted with “reckless indifference to human life;” or,
Because of the defendant's acts, a peace officer was killed while engaged in the performance of his or her duties.
Like non-felony murder in California, there are two degrees of felony murder – first degree and second degree. First-degree felony murder may be punished by:
25 years to life in California state prison;
Life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) or,
The California death penalty.
Note that on March 12, 2019 California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a temporary moratorium of the use of capital punishment in the state.
Second-degree felony murder is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 15 years to life.
There are several legal major defenses available if a person commits a felony murder in California. These include showing that an accused party:
Did not commit a felony;
Had no intent to kill; and/or,
Was not a “major participant” in the felony.