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California grapples with “vague” felony-murder laws in litigation, legislation.

A pending constitutional challenge to California’s broad felony-murder law can move forward because of an August federal appeals court ruling.Bob Egelko, “California Felony-Murder Law Challenge Backed by US Court,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 2018.

Shedrick Henry, the petitioner, was convicted of second-degree felony-murder for killing a bystander when he fired a gun in an apartment building, for which he was sentenced to life in prison.Bob Egelko, “California Felony-Murder Law Challenge Backed by US Court,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 2018. State courts upheld Henry’s conviction in 1997 under the existing statute.Bob Egelko, “California Felony-Murder Law Challenge Backed by US Court,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 2018. But in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that punishment had to be based on a defendant’s acts, not some “uncertain standards related to the general nature of a crime.” Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). Citing this decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Henry could proceed with his appeal on the basis that the state’s felony-murder law could be considered unconstitutionally vague.Henry v. Spearman, No. 17-70170, (9th Cir. 2018) (opinion); and Egelko, “Felony-Murder Law Challenge,” 2018. A new California law signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September, however, may render Henry’s appeal unnecessary.Alexei Koseff, “Hundreds Serving Time for Murder Could Get Sprung Under New California Law,” Sacramento Bee, October 2, 2018; and California SB 1437 (2018). The 2018 law limits a prosecutor’s ability to charge a person with felony-murder to cases where the person directly assisted with the homicide or was “a major participant” in the felony and “acted with reckless indifference to human life,” and allows people previously imprisoned for felony-murder—people like Henry—to petition for resentencing.California SB 1437 (2018).