California’s felony murder law allows judges to send convicts to prison for life — and sentence them to death — even when that person is not directly responsible for the death of another. Sen. Dave Cortese wants to end that practice, and give thousands of inmates charged under the law a chance to apply for a new sentence, with a bill he introduced this week.
Defendants can be charged with felony murder when someone dies, even accidentally, during the commission of a felony like a robbery or burglary. It applies to the person whose actions caused the death and to accomplices — individuals who, while involved in the crime, did not kill anyone and did not intend for anyone to die, Cortese said.
“Our felony murder laws are emblematic of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today,” Cortese said Tuesday. “Californians may not realize that people who did not commit murder are being charged for murder and are being given harsher punishments than those that did.”
According to statistics compiled by the Felony Murder Elimination Project, more than 5,100 California inmates are serving life without parole under the law — many of them had never been convicted of a crime before, and on average were only 19 years old when they were sentenced.
More than 72% of those are first time offenders like Tony Vigeant, according to the project. When he was 20 years old, the Marine was involved in an incident that turned fatal. Vigeant was convicted on robbery and burglary charges and first-degree murder, even though he didn’t do the killing. When he turns 35 later this year, Vigeant will still be serving life without parole at Mule Creek State Prison. His mother Joanne Scheer is the founder and director of the Felony Murder Elimination Project.
“Horrified that my only child was labeled a murderer and sentenced to die in prison, I became determined that this should never happen to another child,” Scheer said. “I had never heard of the felony murder rule, much less special circumstances or life without parole.”
Over the past 15 years as a criminal justice reform advocate and an inmate’s mother, Scheer, who is white, said she quickly noticed how many Black and Brown families were impacted by the law.
“It has been devastating to witness the massive impact this law has had on so many individuals and their families and communities,” Scheer said. “As I’ve met families in prison visiting rooms, I couldn’t help but notice the racial disparity of those who are sentenced to life without parole.”
Three decades ago Tammy Garvin-Cooper, who is Black, was charged under the state’s felony murder law as an accomplice and sentenced to life without parole. She’d still be locked up if not for Gov. Jerry Brown.
“I was incarcerated for 28 years for someone else’s actions under California’s unjust felony murder laws,” said Garvin-Cooper, who expressed support for Cortese’s bill at a news conference on behalf of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners Tuesday morning. “If I wasn’t granted clemency three years ago, I would still be sentenced to die in prison.”
Cortese pointed out that more than two thirds of California inmates sentenced to life without parole under the felony murder law are Black or Latinx. Supporters of the bill say the law has had staggering consequences on people of color and their communities.
“Vengeance, anger, prosecutorial impulses to dole out the worst conceivable punishments, and the dehumanization of Black and Brown communities underlying it all, allowed this irrational and unjust law to persist for decades,” said Raj Jayadev, Executive Director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a co-sponsor of Cortese’s bill. “We are seeing that false assumption that more incarceration equals more public safety being dismantled. And that in fact, to the contrary, proving that freedom and healing are the actual cornerstones of public safety.”
Cortese’s bill will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state’s Legislature to pass.
This story will be updated.