The New York Times: If He Didn’t Kill Anyone, Why is it Murder?

Siddall criticizes California’s attempts to limit criminal liability for murderers.

By Abbie VanSickle

June 27, 2018

SACRAMENTO — Late in the evening on Jan. 27, 2004, four teenagers broke into an elderly neighbor’s house in the Southern California town of Perris, looking for cash.

One of them, Shawn Khalifa, guarded the back door. Shawn, who had just turned 15, slipped into the kitchen and stole some chocolate candies. He briefly saw that the homeowner was seriously hurt, and he ran back outside.

No one accused Shawn of laying a hand on the victim, Hubert Love, 77, but a jury convicted the teenager of first-degree murder.

Mr. Khalifa, now 29 and serving a sentence of 25 years to life, is one of the hundreds of people convicted in California under a legal doctrine known as the felony murder rule, which holds that anyone involved in certain kinds of serious felonies that result in death is as liable as the actual killer.

“I knew I didn’t kill anyone,” Mr. Khalifa said. “I felt and kind of knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. It didn’t seem like there was any room to be a human being again. My life was over.”

But the hard doctrine that sent Mr. Khalifa to prison may be softening. A bill moving through the California Legislature would change state law so that only someone who actually killed, intended to kill or acted as a major player with “reckless indifference to human life” could face murder charges.

The measure, already approved by the California Senate, cleared another important hurdle Tuesday when it won the blessing of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, despite strong opposition from law enforcement groups.

If the bill passes the State Assembly, California will join a growing number of states in abolishing or severely restricting felony murder. Over the decades, legislatures in Hawaii and Kentucky have abolished the rule, and, last fall, Massachusetts joined Michigan in ending it through the courts. The Pennsylvania Legislature is weighing a bill aimed at curtailing the practice.

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