Due to a change in the felony-murder rule, starting Jan. 1, codefendants will no longer automatically be considered guilty of murder for participating in crimes such as armed robbery. The law is retroactive.
On Sept. 30, with a stroke of his pen, Gov. Jerry Brown made Senate Bill 1437 the law. The bill presented by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) states that prosecutors can no longer hold accomplices, who had no intent to kill anyone during the commission of certain specified crimes, accountable for a murder committed by a codefendant.
California’s old felony-murder rule held that when a defendant or a co-defendant commits certain felonies and someone is killed, both defendants are guilty of first-degree murder.
“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” Skinner said after Governor Brown signed the bill into law, according to a Rolling Stone article.“SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”
Under the new law, an accomplice who didn’t actually do the killing can still be held liable if they participated in the underlying crime with an intent to kill and “aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested or assisted” the actual killer in carrying out the murder.
Also, if the accomplice was a major participant in the underlying felony and “acted with reckless indifference to human life” or the victim was someone the culprits “should have reasonably known was a peace officer acting in the line of duty,” they would still be guilty of felony-murder.
San Quentin resident Richard Zorns was convicted of first-degree felony murder 29 years ago for acting as the getaway driver in an armed robbery. Zorns said he participated in the robbery in a misguided attempt to solve several family problems.
“The family crisis in my life had me overwhelmed and impatient, and I thought I could fix it with money,” Zorns said.
Joining in a robbery made things worse for Zorns. According to his Lifer Prisoner Evaluation Report, two codefendants robbed a swap meet while Zorns waited outside in a white Thunderbird. While trying to flee, security guards apprehended one of them and the other co-defendant shot at a guard three times, killing him. The two co-defendants escaped the scene in the car driven by Zorns. For the conviction of murder, all the prosecution had to prove was that Zorns participated in the robbery.
Under the new felony-murder rule, the prosecution would have to prove that Zorns drove his co-defendants away from the scene knowing they just killed a security guard outside of his vision.
“No matter what, my action contributed to somebody being murdered, and I’ll always have remorse about that,” Zorns said. “My mom knows that my intentions were never to hurt anybody.”
An estimated 400 to 800 people incarcerated in California for felony murder will have a chance to petition the court for resentencing, even if they took plea deals, according to Rolling Stone.
The court must vacate the conviction and re-sentence those imprisoned for felony murder or for “murder under a natural and probable consequences theory” who also qualify for relief under the new law.
“No one deserves to die, so I’m sad someone was murdered, but I’m relieved to have a second chance,” Zorns said.
To benefit from the change in law, a petition has to be filed in the court that sentenced the person.