Four Stories of the Felony Murder Rule in California

Four Stories of the Felony Murder Rule in California

From the Court of Appeals opinion in a young woman’s case in the Central Valley:

V.J. was found guilty of first degree felony murder for her participation in an altercation that led to the death of one individual. Her co-defendant, the perpetrator of the homicide, was a man who rented a small house behind her home and had a history of violence. He had instructed V.J. to call him and notify him when another neighbor returned home, so that he could "come up" on him (commit a robbery). She testified that he repeatedly threatened to harm her elderly father, who lived with her, if she did not comply with his request to notify him when the neighbor returned home. When the victim returned home, V.J. made the call to her co-defendant. She would later hear the sounds of her co-defendant striking the victim and went out into the yard when she heard someone moaning. She then summoned her father who took the victim to the hospital where he died from the blow to his head. When questioned by police, V.J. admitted the events above and attributed her participation to her fear that that co-defendant would harm her father.

V.J. was sentenced to 25-years-to-life under the felony murder rule.


From a case involving a young man from the Bay Area:

C.K., an 18 year old boy, agreed to participate in a snatch and grab robbery of a marijuana dealer. He was set up to do the robbery by two older men. His co-participant in the crime – a man unknown to C.K. – had a serious mental illness and was off his medication. When the victim of the crime resisted, C.K.’s mentally ill crime partner, suffering delusions, stabbed the victim. The stabber received a 15-years-to-life sentence and is serving it in a state hospital. C.K. was unarmed and had no idea that his co-defendant was armed. When C.K. saw the victim and his co-defendant struggling, he did not know that the victim was being stabbed. C.K. received a 25-years-to-life sentence under the felony murder rule. The probation officer who wrote C.K.’s pre-sentence report lamented the sentence, writing:

Regrettably, were it not for the fact that a young man lost his life, probation would have been recommended for C.K. He has no prior record of criminal conduct, is willing and capable of adhering to the terms of probation . . . and (he) does not pose a threat to society. C.K. voices remorse for his actions and appears greatly saddened by the death of a young man, near his own age. C.K. fac(es) 25 years to life in confinement, not as a result of his own actions, but as a consequence of a law we have in place to protect our community from violent offenders. (However), C.K. has no prior criminal history and psychological testing concluded that he does not have the propensity for violence or aggressive behavior.

This law we have in place, the felony murder rule, is so overbroad in its application that it sweeps up those who did not kill, did not intend to kill, who were not even armed during the crime, and who did not act with reckless disregard for human life during the crime.


From a letter received from the California Institute for Women:

F., a woman struggling with addiction, and a group of friends went out at night. She and her friend approached two men and asked them if they had drugs. The two men said no. Shortly after, F.’s two co-defendants committed an armed robbery against these men. Afterwards, F. in her own words “was so under the influence they had to tell me to come on and get in the car.” The group all traveled to another stop. At that point, her two co-defendants got out of the car and walked away, where they then attempted to commit another robbery, and tragically, killed the victim in the course of the attempted robbery. F. was in the parked car, a block and a half away when the attempted robbery and murder occurred.

In 2006, F. was convicted of first degree murder under the felony murder rule, and sentenced to 27-years-to-life. She is now 49 years old and will not have an opportunity to go before a parole board until 2028.


From the Human Rights Watch report, “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home”:

C.B., age 16, and his friend, J.M., rode their bikes to a local storm drain intending to graffiti. Once there, J.M. revealed that he had a gun in his backpack, stating that it was for protection. A group of kids arrived and asked them if they wanted to buy marijuana. They said no and the group left. J.M. asked C.B. if they wanted to commit a robbery for the marijuana and in a split-second decision, C.B. responded that he didn’t care. J.M. took the gun out of his backpack, approached and pointed the revolver at the victim who had offered them the marijuana earlier, and demanded the substance. At that point, the victim challenged him. As C.B. turned to pick up his bike, thinking that they were leaving, shots rang out. Both boys fled the scene in fear; C.B. did not think that the victim was hit. When arrested later, C.B. was charged with first degree murder with special circumstances. C.B. was offered a lesser charge and a 15-years-to-life sentence if he pled, but had a difficult time comprehending how he could plead guilty to a murder he had not committed.

C.B. went to trial and was found guilty; he was given a life without parole sentence. J.M., who actually shot the victim, accepted a plea bargain and received a sentence that will allow him to go before the parole board one day. C.B. now laments the pain caused to the victim’s family, from a small prison unit known as the “Honor Yard,” a placement for particularly well-behaved, problem-free inmates.



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