In 2003, at age 18, Adnan Khan was involved in the robbery of a marijuana dealer. His accomplice stabbed and killed the man in the process.
Under California’s felony murder rule, Khan was held equally responsible for the killing. He was convicted of felony murder, and got a sentence of 25 years to life.
Khan spent nearly half of his life behind bars, the last four years in San Quentin State Prison in Marin County.
“Sixteen years ago, I participated in and committed a robbery. And I was absolutely wrong for that,” Khan said. “Unfortunately, the man that I was with stabbed and killed the young man. And my intentions were not to kill anyone.”
Then, something changed on Jan. 1. That’s when Senate Bill 1437, co-authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat, and Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a Republican, took effect. The bill changed the law that allowed prosecutors to lock up Khan for a murder he didn’t actually commit.
Khan’s murder conviction was overturned last week.
This law changes a centuries-old law in California known as the felony murder rule,” said a policy director at Re:store Justice, a criminal justice reform organization Khan co-founded while in prison.
“Under the felony murder rule, all accomplices to certain felonies including, most commonly, robbery and burglary, can be charged and convicted of a first-degree murder when an accomplice kills another person, or when a death occurs,” she said.
Khan is the first person to be released from prison under SB 1437. Prior to the bipartisan bill, state law allowed people who participated in crimes that led to a death — even if they did not assist in the killing — to be convicted of felony murder.
“With this new legislation change, the law says that I’m not responsible for the murder,” said Khan. “Although the law has changed, I still do take responsibility for it, and I have since day one.”
While he was in prison, Khan got involved in criminal justice reform work.
He co-founded Re:store Justice, which helped sponsor SB 1437. He also mentored youth and worked on the San Quentin video program, First Watch, which seeks to humanize incarceration by telling the stories of inmates. He plans to continue this work.
“I think that we barely touch the surface on incarcerated people telling their own stories,” said Khan. “Being out now, I want to pursue that and continue it from my side, and start telling stories about formerly incarcerated people.”
He noted that much of the debate around criminal justice — and ultimately, the laws that came out of those debates in years past — was driven by anecdotes.
A lot of laws and sentencing reform and criminal justice reform is based around telling stories,” Khan said. “A lot of laws went into effect from telling the other side of the story: The dangers, the monsters, the criminals, that you can’t trust them. And I know that’s not true for many of the men and even formerly incarcerated women I’ve met. We want to highlight the stories of the great, amazing work people are doing, not only once they’re in prison, but once they get out.”
During his first week out, Khan has been focusing on reconnecting with his friends and family, and adjusting to life on the outside.
“There are times where I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m looking for my [cellmate] and he’s not around,” said Khan. “And then I just smile and go back to sleep. And sometimes I wake up and feel like I’ve been here forever.”
Since being released, Khan has had to learn to text and use a smartphone, because cellphones didn’t even have cameras yet when he was incarcerated nearly 16 years ago.
“Did I ever expect to get out? That’s a very hard question, because some people like to say that I’m a pessimist. I like to say I’m a realist,” said Khan. “And what that meant for me was I have 25 years to life. And I have 25 years to do before I’m even eligible for a parole board. And so did I ever feel like I was going home? Honestly, sometimes the hope was there. But realistically, it was too far for me to even think if I was or not.”
Khan is one of the first to benefit from SB 1437 — but as many as 800 other inmates with murder convictions may be eligible for shorter sentences.
Mass and static incarceration will not be solved unless we address that which we are most afraid to talk about: violent crime, and/or those serving life sentences. Our mission is to change the way society and the justice system respond to violence and harm. From Proximity to policy.