Change in California's Felony Murder Law Could Set Hundreds Free

Hundreds of people convicted of felony murder in California could soon have another day in court and eventually walk free as a result of a change to the state’s felony murder law. In San Diego, at least 150 cases could be impacted.

“This new law goes too far. And I am concerned about public safety,” said San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan.

SB 1437 was signed into law last month by Governor Jerry Brown and will go into effect on January 1, 2019. Under the change, if a defendant in a crime did not kill, intend to kill, or did not act with reckless indifference to human life in the death in question, that person cannot be found liable for murder.

“There could be a significant number of prisoners that are released instantly,” said Stephan.

The District Attorney cited the 2016 stabbing death of Hugh Pettigrew, 33, of Fallbrook. Three alleged gang members were convicted, even though prosecutors could not prove who actually committed the murder. The new law will allow the three to petition for a new hearing. As many as 800 cases could be impacted throughout California.

“All three were held responsible, rightfully so, because all three cooperated to murdering this innocent man for their benefit to their gang,” said Stephan.

But under the new law, defendants who did not play a role in the actual killing would not necessarily be found guilty of murder. It will be the burden of the district attorney’s office to show every person had the intent to kill.

“If we’re able, for example, to prove that all three knew, agreed ahead of time that someone is going to die, they’re not going to leave a witness alive, then they’re going to get to remain in custody as murderers. But that level of proof is very hard to come by,” said Stephan.

Meanwhile, advocates for criminal justice reform are praising the new law.

“It’s a much-needed change. It gives many who are hopeless, hope, finally. It tries to reform a very unjust law,” said Laila Aziz with the group Pillars of the Community.

Aziz says she knows of at least seven people in prison for a murder they did not commit. She cites the case of then 18-year-old Brian Mason who was sentenced to life in prison in 2000. Mason was with several other people in a National City motel when a man was shot and killed. He did not pull the trigger.

“A young man who never killed anyone or planned to. It's a sad situation,” said Aziz.

While District Attorney Stephan says she's also concerned about the heartache facing families who "thought" they had received justice, Aziz is hopeful the new law will help achieve justice for those she says are wrongfully imprisoned.

“Never ever have I wished that person who did not kill my loved one rot in prison to make me feel better. And the victims I know feel the same way, said Aziz.

SB 1437 was co-written by Republican State Senator Joel Anderson of Alpine.

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