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California Lawmakers Need to Address a Major Oversight in SB 1437

Senate Bill 1437, passed back in 2019, significantly changed how California homicide offenses were charged. More specifically, SB 1437 prohibited prosecutions for first- or second-degree murder for someone who was “not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

As a result of SB 1437’s passage, many defendants who were convicted of murder crimes were eligible to have their convictions reviewed by the court to determine if they were eligible for relief. However, there is a major gap in SB 1437, because it does not apply to those found guilty of California manslaughter offenses.

While, initially, it may seem like this makes sense, as those convicted of murder are likely serving much longer sentences, a recent article highlights the current inequities of SB 1437. The article describes the case of a man who was alleged to have been involved in a robbery of a brothel. Evidently, the defendant waited outside as his friend ran inside the brothel alone, shooting and killing one of the occupants.

Before trial, prosecutors approached the defendant with a proposition: testify against the shooter and plead guilty to the lesser offense of manslaughter. Facing a potential life sentence if he turned down the offer, the defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter and cooperated with the prosecution. This was back in 2016 before SB 1437 became law.

After the passage of SB 1437, the defendant sought the review of his conviction. However, he was recently told that he is ineligible because SB 1437 only applies to those convicted—not charged with—murder. However, the current phrasing of SB 1437 ignores a very common reality in criminal law: defendants are frequently charged with a more serious offense, but end up pleading guilty to a lesser crime. Of course, a defendant who pleads guilty to a lesser crime in doing so, in large part, because of the possible exposure they face if they were to fight and lose on the lead charge. Thus, SB 1437 should be amended to at least include situations in which a defendant is initially charged with murder, but pleads guilty to a lesser offense. This would acknowledge the inherent pressure involved in facing a murder case, and allow for similarly situated defendants to benefit under the law, as lawmakers intended.

It appears that California lawmakers recognize this problem, and are taking steps to address it. Recently, SB 775 was proposed which, if passed, would allow those convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder to benefit from SB 1437.

Are You Serving Time for a California Homicide Offense?

If you or a loved one is currently incarcerated, serving time for a California homicide offense, recent laws may entitle you to relief. California post-conviction attorney Matthew Barhoma, at Barhoma Law, represents individuals in all types of appellate and post-conviction matters stemming from homicide convictions. With his help, you can better understand how to pursue relief under the complex—and changing—criminal justice reform laws. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, call 213-800-7664 today. You can also reach Attorney Barhoma through his online form.

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