Re:store Justice is pleased to announce that legal luminaries from across the United States, including the co-founders of the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Stephen Bright from the Southern Center for Human Rights, Dean Strang, the dedicated lawyer in Making a Murderer, and Erwin Chemerinsky, Professor and Dean of Berkeley Law, have joined other law professors and scholars from California in support of the bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill, SB 1437. SB 1437 has been introduced by California State Senators Nancy Skinner (D) and Joel Anderson (R).
In their support letter, these scholars write:
As attorneys and law professors, many of the below signatories have not only witnessed, but have studied and researched incarceration trends in California and in the nation . . . Reforming the felony murder rule is necessary in order to address racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system. It is also necessary to ensure that those who did not act with the intent to harm another are not sentenced out of proportion to their culpability.
For more information regarding this, please contact Julie Mai at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 6, 2018
The Honorable Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher
Chairperson, Assembly Appropriations Committee
State Capitol, Room 2114
Sacramento, CA 95814
RE: Support for Senate Bill 1437 (Skinner)
Dear Assemblymember Gonzalez Fletcher:
We write to you as lawyers, scholars, and law professors from around the country and from California in support of Senate Bill 1437, a bill that would bring reform to accomplice liability in California’s homicide statutes. This bill also provides an opportunity for resentencing for those who are currently serving a disproportionately long sentence for a homicide that person did not commit.
The California Supreme Court has repeatedly condemned the felony murder rule, stating that the rule “anachronistically resurrects from a bygone age a ‘barbaric concept’” that “erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability.” (See People v. Washington (1965) 62 Cal. 2d 777, 781; People v. Phillips (1966) 64 Cal. 2d 574, 582, 583, fn. 6; People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal. 3d 441, 463.) When the Michigan Supreme Court abolished its felony murder rule 38 years ago, it quoted from this California Supreme Court case law and condemned the felony murder rule as “a historic survivor for which there is no logical or practical basis for existence in modern law.” (People v. Aaron (Mich.) 1980 409 Mich. 672.) When the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts limited the application of its felony murder rule in September 2017, it also cited this California case law. (Commonwealth v. Brown (2017) 81 N.E. 3d 1173.) However, although other states have acted, California has not yet heeded its own high court’s call
SB 1437 would not abolish the felony murder rule. Rather, it would limit a first degree murder sentence to those who 1) actually killed; 2) aided and abetted the killing with the intent to cause death; or 3) acted as a major participant and with reckless disregard to human life during the course of the felony. SB 1437 also affirms that malice is required for a murder conviction, with the exception of the actual killer in a felony murder, who will still be liable even if the death was accidental or unintentional. A person’s culpability for murder must be premised upon that person’s own actions and subjective intent. It is important to hold those who commit serious crimes accountable. We can do this and also have a just legal system in which the punishment imposed for crimes is proportional to an individual’s own culpability. SB 1437 does this.
As attorneys and law professors, many of the below signatories have not only witnessed, but have studied and researched incarceration trends in California and in the nation. In this context, we have seen that criminal statutes that impose lengthy sentences have been disproportionately applied to youth of color. Moreover, approximately 72% of women who are incarcerated under the felony murder rule in California were not the perpetrators of the actual homicide yet they were still sentenced to life imprisonment for the actions of another. Reforming the felony murder rule is necessary in order to address racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system. It is also necessary to ensure that those who did not act with the intent to harm another are not sentenced out of proportion to their culpability.
We urge the Legislature to vote yes on Senate Bill 1437.
Scott Altman, Virginia S. and Fred H. Bice Professor of Law, USC Gould School of Law*
Lara Bazelon, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics, University of San Francisco School of Law
Stephen Bright, Past Director, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia
Harvey Karp Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School; Professor of Practice at Georgia State College of Law; Visiting Professor of Law, Georgetown University
Rebecca Brown, The Rader Family Trustee Chair in Law, USC Gould School of Law
Nick Brustin, Partner, Neufeld, Scheck, and Brustin, LLP
Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Professor of Law, Berkeley Law
Simon Cole, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Criminology, Law & Society, University of California, Irvine
David B. Cruz, Professor of Law, USC Gould School of Law
Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director, Prison Law and Policy Program, UCLA School of Law
Sam Erman, Associate Professor of Law, USC Gould School of Law
Adam Foss, Executive Director, Prosecutor Impact
Niels W. Frenzen, Sydney M. and Audrey M. Irmas Endowed Clinical Professor of Law; Director, USC Immigration Clinic, USC Gould School of Law
Ronald Kaye, Partner, Kaye, McLane, Bednarski, + Litt, LLP
Gregory Keating, William T. Dalessi Professor of Law and Philosophy, USC Gould School of Law
Richard A. Leo, Ph.D., J.D., Hamill Family Chair of Law and Social Psychology, USF School of Law
Peter Neufeld, Co-founder, The Innocence Project; Partner, Neufeld, Scheck, and Brustin, LLP
Heidi Rummel, Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Post Conviction Justice Project, USC Gould School of Law
Barry Scheck, Co-Founder, The Innocence Project; Professor of Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
Dan Simon, Richard L. and Maria B. Crutcher Professor of Law & Psychology, USC Gould School of Law and Department of Psychology
Jonathan Simon, Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law; Director of the Center for Study of the Law and Human Society, Berkeley Law
Dean A. Strang, Strang Bradley, LLC
Keith Wattley, Obama Foundation Fellow, Executive Director, UnCommon Law; Lecturer in Law, Berkeley Law
cc: All Members of the California Assembly
Senator Nancy Skinner
Senator Joel Anderson
- Institutional affiliations are given for identification purposes only.