Previously, individuals in California could be charged with murder under Penal Code 189 if they were involved in the commission a felony, and a person died as a result of the felony. Examples of such felonies include rape, carjacking, arson, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, and robbery. It did not matter if you were the individual who actually killed the other person. Under PC 189, the penalties for a murder conviction in California include a prison sentence of 25 years to life in state prison or life imprisonment without parole.

California recently changed felony murder law to apply to individuals who actually killed the victim, helped commit the offense with the intent to kill, or committed the felony with reckless disregard to human life. Senate Bill 1437 was passed by the California legislature and signed into law by the Governor of California. This law is written under Penal Code 1170.95 PC and took effect on January 2019. It applies to all ongoing and future murder cases in trial courts and appeals courts. PC 1170.95 allows eligible individuals to petition to vacate a murder conviction.

The term “vacate” in criminal law refers to overruling or rendering something void. A court can vacate your judgment based on an error that is significant enough to interfere with the outcome. Conversely, a conviction can only be vacated if the court determines that you’ve met the eligibility requirements. A vacated conviction will be erased from the record of your criminal history. Your attorney will have to file a motion to the court in compliance with California’s murder laws.

This law will end the practice of sentencing a convicted person murder if he/she did not commit the homicide or did not have knowledge that a homicide occurred, same as an individual who committed the homicide with intent to kill. This law also offers law enforcement a powerful tool to help identify individuals responsible for the murder. In a case involving co-defendant felony murder, co-defendants who did not commit the actual murder, who did not help with the killing, or who did not act with reckless disregard for human life will now have the opportunity to talk and tell the truth about the incident. The legislature discovers that prolonged sentences aren’t proportionate to the culpability of a person who was not the actual killer.

The intent behind the enactment of this law is to ensure the sentencing is more proportional and equitable and matches the culpability of the individual, by holding individuals who cause harm liable for their actions. It also helps in the reduction of prison overcrowding. This law allows murder convicts to petition to a California court to have their convictions reversed. In the past, California murder laws did not feature any exceptions for individuals convicted for murder to petition the judgment. However, the introduction of SB 1437 provides limits for murder convictions on several legal grounds.

If you’re seeking to petition for resentencing under Penal Code 1170.95, there are two key requirements that determine your eligibility. Your California murder conviction must have been due to liability under:

  • the felony murder rule, or
  • the natural and probable consequences theory

This means that you cannot be eligible for or succeed on a petition to vacate a murder conviction if you were the actual killer.

Eligibility for Filing a Petition Under Penal Code 1170.95

A defendant convicted of murder in California may be eligible to file a petition in the same court where they were sentenced in order to have their conviction vacated if:

  • The defendant accepted a plea offer in lieu of trial or was convicted of first or second-degree murder after a trial
  • The charge sheet allowed the prosecutor to proceed under the natural and probable consequences or the felony murder rule
  • The defendant cannot be convicted of first or second-degree murder because of SB1437 enactment

However, as much as PC 1170.95 offers relief to individuals convicted of murder, the law has its limitations. In essence, a defendant is ineligible for relief under PC 1170.95 if:

  • The defendant was not the actual killer
  • The defendant was not the actual killer but played a major role in aiding and abetting the actual killer, all with the intent to kill.
  • The victim was a peace officer performing official duties
  • The defendant was a major participant in the murder and acted recklessly in a manner that endangers human life

Petition Requirements

The resentencing petition under PC 1170.95 must be served on the prosecuting agency in the county where the defendant was convicted. If the judge who presided over the case is not available, he/she will assign another judge to rule on the petition. A petition to vacate a murder conviction must contain information about:

  • The case number and the year of conviction,
  • The defendant’s declaration that they are qualified for relief under Penal Code 1170.95 based on the aforementioned requirements, and
  • Whether the petitioner requests the appointment of an attorney

If the information is missing or cannot be ascertained by the court, the application may be denied without prejudice, and the defendant will be informed that the court cannot rule on the petition without the required information. Fortunately, a petition denied on such grounds will not hinder a defendant from re-petitioning as soon as the missing information is recovered.

Filing the Petition

As already mentioned, the petition to vacate a murder conviction should be filed in the same court where the sentencing occurred. Furthermore, the lawyer should serve copies of the same to the District Attorney (DA) in the sentencing court. If the court finds that you have shown eligibility, your case will then proceed to trial. The DA will have the opportunity to file a response, and the defendant’s attorney will file a rejoinder regarding the same. Also, the court will establish whether or not the case deserves a hearing.  The defendant’s attorney and the prosecution team should rely on the conviction record to support or challenge it.

If the prosecutor fails to demonstrate the defendant’s ineligibility beyond a reasonable doubt, the court can vacate the murder conviction. The defendant may as well have the sentencing reduced to a shorter term. People who were resentenced usually receive credits for the time already served. The defendant may be required to serve up to 3 years of parole after completing their sentence.

The Burden of Proof When Seeking to Have a Murder Conviction Overturned

The burden of proof in a criminal case refers to the obligation a party has to prove claims against the other party. As one party bears the burden of proof, the other is given the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to petitioning to vacate a murder conviction under PC 1170.95, the prosecutor’s side bears the burden of proof. The court will expect the prosecutor to table a claim in dispute of the request to have the murder conviction overturned. The legal standards surrounding the burden of proof in California murder cases include reasonable suspicion, reasonable indications, probable cause, and beyond a reasonable doubt. Nearly all of these legal standards are necessary before a defendant is convicted of murder.

In a petition to vacate a murder conviction, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s conviction should not be vacated. This is the highest burden of proof standard mostly applies in criminal proceedings involving aggravated situations.

Formalities and Procedures for the Petition Hearing

The prosecuting agency involved in the case must respond to a defendant’s petition within 60 days of being served with the petition. The defendant, on the other hand, will have a chance to file a response within 30 days thereafter. If either party in the petition establishes good cause, the time limit for responses may be extended by the court. Once the judge issues an order to show the cause, the court is required to hold a hearing within 60 days to establish whether to resentence the defendant or vacate the murder conviction. However, the prosecution and the defendant may agree to have the hearing waived, making the defendant eligible to vacate their murder conviction. This also applies if the court found that the defendant did not act with reckless disregard for human life or was not a major participant in the killing.

At the hearing, the prosecution bears the burden of proof and must demonstrate that the defendant does not meet the requirement necessary to have the murder conviction vacated or be resentenced. If the prosecutor fails to prove that standard, the court will vacate the murder conviction and/or resentence the defendant on any remaining counts. Both parties in the petition may rely on the transcripts of the trials or hearings and may also be allowed to produce new evidence. If the defendant is granted relief, but the charge was generic, and the target offense wasn’t charged, the court must redesignate the conviction as the target offense or felony for the purpose of resentencing. Moreover, if the defendant is resentenced, he/she should get credit for time served. The judge may then order parole supervision for a maximum of three years after the sentence.

How the Sixth Amendment Rights Apply in a Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction

When petitioning to have your murder conviction vacated, the defendant will still be considered a criminal and will be entitled to his/her Sixth Amendment Rights. Amendment VI of the United States Constitution guarantees a citizen the right to legal counsel, speedy trial, a fair jury, and the chance to confront witnesses. Moreover, the defendant has the right to understand the criminal charges filed against them, as well as the pieces of evidence the prosecution team intends to use against them. In the context of seeking to have the murder conviction vacated, the defendant’s right to speedy trials allows him/her to take legal action against numerous parties should there be any unnecessary delays in the case. Adequate legal representation in these proceedings is necessary.

Differences between a Petition Vacate a Murder Conviction and a Motion to Vacate a Criminal Judgment in California

In California, a person who enters a guilty or “no contest” plea to a charge must do so knowingly, intelligibly, and freely. Penal Code 1018 allows a person to file a Motion to Vacate Judgment if he/she:

  • Was coerced into the plea,
  • Subsequently learned that he/she unaware of the implications of the plea, or
  • Was represented by an incompetent lawyer or did not receive legal representation at all.

A motion to vacate a criminal judgment allows a person to request a California court to overrule a previous order or judgment. This means that the defendant can alternatively plead “not guilty” to the offense, which will result in the conviction being erased and the case being rewound to where the beginning. A defendant can only file a motion to vacate judgment before being sentenced or within six months of their probation.

Conversely, a person who is no longer in criminal custody can file a motion to vacate a conviction under California Penal Code 1473.7. This law became effective in January 2017 and applies to individuals who lost the ability to challenge their conviction. The motion can be based on a prejudicial error or newly discovered evidence of actual innocence.

Usually, motions are in the form of a written or oral application submitted to a court seeking a ruling or an order in an imminent case. On the contrary, a petition is a written application usually used to initiate a proceeding. When seeking to have a murder conviction vacated, you will need a petition for the request and not a motion. Once you file your petition, it serves as an application asking the authority to be exercised when relief is granted.

Other Legal Remedies for a Murder Conviction

A petition to vacate a murder conviction is the most recent legal remedy for a conviction of murder in the State of California. However, there are other legal options individuals convicted of murder can explore, including:

Applying for a Governor’s Pardon

A Governor’s Pardon in California is a type of honor granted by the Governor to individuals who have received rehabilitation for the crime committed. The pardon offers relief to most of the penalties imposed as a result of a criminal conviction. If convicted of murder or any other criminal charge, a defendant has 7 to 10 years to apply for a Governor’s pardon. Usually, the application timeline commences immediately after the effective completion of probation or parole. 

Once a murder conviction is vacated, it won’t count as a prior offense if a person is convicted of the same crime. This isn’t the case with a Governor’s pardon. When the governor grants you the honor, the conviction will remain on your criminal history and serve as a prior when facing a preceding offense.  Most importantly, you’re not required to commit any serious offense within the next ten years after receiving this honor.

Appealing the Murder Conviction

Because murder convictions are mostly administered in a lower court, an appeal allows a defendant to request a higher court to review the conviction. In California, the appeal process doesn’t involve hearing testimonies from several witnesses, administering new evidence, or retrying the murder case.  Felony appeals are handled in the California Court of Appeal while misdemeanor appeals are handled by the appellate court. The higher court will analyze the proceedings as well as the judicial rulings of a smaller court to determine if there are any judicial errors. The person filling the appeal only has 30 to 60 days to submit their Notice of Appeal after being convicted in a trial court.

Petitioning to Have the Sentence Reduced

In addition to vacating a murder conviction, Senate Bill 1437 also allows for a sentence reduction. For the sentenced reduction, the defendant must file a petition with his/her sentencing court or prosecuting agency. The petition must constitute a declaration demonstrating the defendant’s admissibility to have the sentence reduced.  The eligibility requirements for a resentencing are similar to those for petitioning to have a murder conviction vacated. A resentencing hearing is immediately held after the defendant proves eligibility. The prosecuting attorney’s role at the hearing is to prove that the sentence should not be reduced. If the prosecuting side fails to make this proof, any allegations or enhancement s attached to a conviction will be vacated. The defendant will then be resentenced based on the remaining charges.

Finding a Los Angeles Murder Defense Attorney Near Me

If you believe either you or a loved one has been convicted of murder in Los Angeles and believe that you should be eligible for early release under Senate Bill 1437/Penal Code 1170.95, contact an experienced Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer today. With over 20 years of experience in criminal defense and huge success helping clients facing felony murder charges, we can help you get a second chance at freedom. Our attorneys are highly competent and familiar with changes in the law. Let us help you today. Call the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer at 310-502-1314 for a free, confidential consultation. We handle petitions throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.  We will be there when you get in touch with us.