Home California Cortese Bill to Reform Felony Murder Rule and Life Without Parole Advances

Cortese Bill to Reform Felony Murder Rule and Life Without Parole Advances

Press Release

by ECT

Senate Bill (SB) 300 authored by State Senator Dave Cortese (D-Silicon Valley), a bill to reform California’s “felony murder special circumstance” law as well as the life in prison without parole (LWOP) sentence, cleared a crucial hurdle Wednesday when it advanced through the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

At a news conference held earlier today at the California State Capitol, Senator Cortese said this bill was meant to reform previous state statutes that are severely outdated and unjust.

“When this doctrine is largely done away with in other states and other parts of the world, it begs the question of who these laws are really impacting here in our state,” says Senator Cortese. “Life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime you did not commit or intend to commit is a sentence no one deserves, but it is one being disproportionately served to black and Latinx communities in California, particularly our young people.”

Presented as “A modest reform to an extreme injustice,” SB 300 will address California’s unjust “felony murder special circumstance” law by allowing for a sentence other than the death penalty or LWOP for a person who did not kill anyone, nor intend for anyone to die.

This bill restores judicial discretion to impose a sentence other than death or LWOP when a judge rules that it serves the interest of justice in a case where a special circumstance is charged.

Tammy Cooper, a formerly incarcerated woman who was sentenced to life without parole after being charged as an unwilling accomplice says, “I was sentenced to life without parole for a crime my abuser committed, and this backwards law took 28 years of my life. We need SB 300 to make sure that people are not sentenced to die for other people’s actions. Please help prevent other survivors like me from facing death by incarceration or execution.”

There is no justice without mercy, which is why I strongly support the passage of SB 300,” said Lynn Williams, crime victim and advocate. “Life without parole is just a prolonged death sentence — and it robs a person of hope and robs society of the potential this person might become. Our state must make a commitment to rehabilitate, to restore, and to assimilate a person back into society.”

Jamil Wilson, an individual formerly sentenced to LWOP said, “The only way I am here today and making a difference in my community back home is because of a commutation after serving 26 years of incarceration. And I’m proud to be one of 170 plus people in California who have been commuted after receiving an LWOP sentence. I urge the California Legislature to pass SB 300. This common sense, modest reform will reduce extreme sentencing, while keeping people accountable for their actions, in California’s legal system.”

We have to allow a pathway for people to earn their way back to freedom. We are all impacted by life without parole. The communities who are left behind, the victims and crime survivors, the people who cause harm and the families,” said Yolanda, of Silicon Valley De-Bug. “This bill is essential because, though it is modest in scope, for those doing LWOP and their loved ones, it is the most meaningful legislation thus far.”

Dr. Alisa Bierria, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA, said, “If you have a law that punishes people for something someone else did, that law will disproportionately impact victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking because those victims often cannot extract themselves away from abusive individuals. Coercion, terror and chaos puts victims in violent situations not of their making.”

Sponsors of SB 300 that joined today’s Press Conference included:

  • Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • California Coalition for Women Prisoners
  • Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)
  • The Drop LWOP Coalition
  • Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
  • Families United to End LWOP (FUEL)
  • Felony Murder Elimination Project
  • Silicon Valley De-Bug
  • Young Women’s Freedom Center

Editors notes:

  • February 2022: Senator Cortese Introduces Legislation to Reform California’s Felony Murder Laws
    • According to that release: SB 300 will address this injustice by allowing for a sentence other than the death penalty or life in prison without parole for a person who did not themselves commit the murder and did not intend for anyone to die.
  • May 2022: Bill to Reform California’s Felony Murder Special Circumstance Law Moves Forward
    • SB 300, The Sentencing Reform Act of 2021, has passed the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and will now be voted on by the entire California State Senate.
    • Current California law mandates a sentence of death or life without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of ‘murder with special circumstances,’ even if the person did not kill anyone, nor intend for anyone to die. Under current law, if a person dies during the course of certain felonies, even if the death is accidental, those who were involved in the felony are subject to these severe punishments regardless of their role in the person’s death or their intent,” says Senator Cortese. (Watch Senator Cortese’s full testimony at this link.)

      The Senator added, “Additionally, for all crimes in this sentencing scheme, if any special circumstance is found true, the judge has no choice but to sentence the person to death or life without the possibility of parole – current law forbids the judge from considering whether these punishments are fair in any given case. The mandated minimum is to die behind prison walls, without any means of earning parole.”

    • SB 300  will reverse the injustices of current LWOP sentencing law by restoring discretion to judges in these cases. SB 300 will also disallow individuals to be sentenced to death by execution or LWOP when they did not directly perpetrate a death, did not aid or abet a killing, and had no intent to kill. Individuals who were sentenced this way would be eligible for resentencing. This would offer recourse to hundreds – potentially more – of Californians currently awaiting execution or condemned to die in prison for someone else’s actions.
    • Senator Nancy Skinner’s (D-Berkeley) SB 1437, that became law in 2018, also tackled California’s unjust felony murder rule, by reserving murder charges and punishment to those that actually commit murder in most cases. SB 1437 also allowed those convicted the opportunity to be resentenced to a lower sentence. SB 1437 did not, however, address felony murder cases under the special circumstances law. Governor Gavin Newsom has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in California for as long as he is serving as Governor.

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