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California Prosecutors Challenge Murder Law

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In most parts of the country, you can be convicted of murder even if the courts agree you didn't actually kill anyone. That's because of the felony murder rule. It says someone who was part of a dangerous felony in which someone was killed can be charged with murder. Several states, including Massachusetts, Hawaii, Michigan and California, have restricted or abolished the law under criminal-justice reform efforts. But as Claire Trageser from member station KPBS in San Diego reports, California's new law is now being challenged in court.

COLLEEN KHALIFA: Oh, this was right before...

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: Right before he was arrested.

Colleen Khalifa spreads out photos of her son Shawn on the table. Her daughter and grandson lean over to look.

KHALIFA: Is that your uncle? Jackson, where's Uncle Shawn?

JACKSON: At San Diego.

TRAGESER: Shawn Khalifa is in prison serving 25 years to life for murder, even though he didn't pull the trigger.

KHALIFA: When Shawn was first arrested, I called people, you know, lawyers. And I said, felony murder. They told me, right off the bat, you've lost. You're going to visit your son for the rest of his life in prison.

TRAGESER: Khalifa was 15 years old and acted as a lookout for two older teenagers when they robbed a house and killed the homeowner. Even though he wasn't in the house when the killing happened, Khalifa was convicted of first-degree murder in adult court under California's felony murder rule. But a law passed last year could change his future.

NANCY SKINNER: One's punishment should fit your role in a crime.

TRAGESER: Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, wrote a new law that restricted felony murder convictions.

SKINNER: And I think that's a fundamental fairness of our entire criminal justice and judicial process.

TRAGESER: Now only people who helped with a murder or showed, quote, "a reckless indifference to human life" can be convicted. People like Khalifa already in prison for felony murder can apply for reduced sentences. But that's now on hold because of district attorneys across the state.

SUMMER STEPHAN: It essentially allows people to get away with murder.

TRAGESER: San Diego district attorney Summer Stephan is one of several California DA's opposing the new law in court. She says she believes in criminal-justice reform.

STEPHAN: I just don't believe in unsafe reform that tramples over a victims' rights.

TRAGESER: Stephan says limiting felony murder convictions opens a loophole if an eyewitness can't tell who the murderer is.

STEPHAN: If they all wear masks and you can't determine who shot the gun then all three or four or two will get away with murder.

TRAGESER: Skinner, who wrote the law, disagrees and says, that's not a strong case.

SKINNER: Eyewitness evidence alone in many, many cases is not sufficient to prove the circumstance of the crime.

JACKSON: Grandma, take me to McDonalds.

TRAGESER: Back at the Khalifas, Colleen Khalifa is ready for her son to come home.

KHALIFA: Shawn is still Shawn. Amazingly, he's kept who he is intact. I know that he's been through a living hell.

TRAGESER: They're waiting to find out if his request for a reduced sentence will be approved. The DA's challenge to the law will be argued in the 4th Circuit. A court date is pending. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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