At this time, there are hundreds of inmates serving exceedingly long prison sentences for their participation in crimes that involved murder, even though – they – didn’t kill anyone. The reality for such prisoners is the result of a state law that allows prosecutors to charge alleged criminals with second-degree murder if they are part of an “inherently dangerous” felony that leads to an unintentional death, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Essentially, California’s felony-murder law gives district attorneys the authority to file murder charges without having to prove that the defendant intended to take a life.
While still uncertain and vehemently opposed by many California prosecutors, a federal appeals court cleared the way this month for a constitutional challenge to the state’s broad felony-murder law, according to the article. New legislation passed in the Senate, if approved and signed into law, would amend the constitution to exclude people from murder charges if they do not actually commit the killing or act with “reckless indifference” to human life.
“Inherently Dangerous” Felony
A defendant is charged with murder, under a theory of felony murder. In order to prove that the defendant is guilty of second-degree murder under the theory of felony murder, the State must prove that:
- The defendant committed [or attempted to commit] inherently dangerous felony or felonies;
- The defendant intended to commit an inherently dangerous felony or felonies; and,
- The defendant did an act that caused the death of another person. A person may be guilty of felony murder even if the killing was unintentional, accidental, or negligent.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided that a man who is serving 19 years to life for a 1996 murder conviction could try to make a case that the California felony-murder law is unconstitutionally vague, according to the article. The court stated that the rule “takes an abstract approach to evaluating a crime’s dangerousness.”
“The risk threshold for an inherently dangerous crime is imprecise,” said Judge Ronald Gould.
The decision opens the door for the constitutional challenge. We will continue to follow this critical story as it develops.
Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney
Please contact the Law Office of Ronald G. Brower if you are facing criminal charges in the State of California. With decades of experience, attorney Brower can give you the best shot at achieving a favorable outcome in your case.