Orange County Criminal Lawyer is a well-reputed criminal defense law firm with years of experience in assisting clients in and around the Orange County area with legal representation and advice. The attorneys for the firm are skilled and know the ins and outs of California criminal law and can pursue petitions for vacating a murder conviction. The law firm can help convicts facing life sentences without parole to have their convictions vacated or cases resentenced. It is also possible to prove that the individuals facing murder convictions did not intend to endanger human life. Years of experience and knowledge of the latest happening in the criminal defense arena help the law experts develop a solid defense to achieve results in your best interest. 

Petition to Vacate Murder Conviction Under California Law

Simply put, in terms of criminal law, vacating a conviction means to set aside the verdict. This means, if eligible, it will appear that you were never convicted of a crime. A vacated murder conviction nullifies the conviction, and it will be erased from your criminal history. You will be released from all potential penalties and disabilities that may have resulted from the offense. The prosecution team will see it as a new trial and pursue your case again. This can free murder convicts from the stigma of being convicted of a felony crime like murder. In order to accomplish this, you will need to approach an experienced attorney to file a petition in the court to start the process of vacating a murder conviction judgment. A petitioner must comply with all the legal requirements of the California murder laws for the petition to be accepted.

California Murder Law. The state of California, under Penal Code 187, defines the crime of murder as the unlawful, premeditated killing (with malice) of a human being or fetus by another. The charge of a murder can be classified as first-degree or second-degree. In California, the former typically carries a punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in the state prison or imprisonment for a term of 25 years in state prison.

California laws for conviction of murder are complex. Previously, even in circumstances where you don’t personally kill a person and/or attempt to commit a killing, you can be convicted of murder charges and treated as a murder in the eyes of the law. Such a scenario can be easily understood with this simple example. Let's say a person C was the getaway driver for a case of a planned bank robbery while persons A and B were the actual robbers. Persons A and B go armed, but person C had little clue about this. As planned, person C stays in the car outside. However, things go unexpected, and person B kills the cashier with a gunshot suspecting him of trying to call the cops. In such as case, even though person C had no clue that the other two persons A and B were armed and neither had they planned of a murder during a robbery, person C will still be convicted of a first-degree murder under the California PC section 189 – felony murder rule, because person C was a part of the underlying conspiracy of a planned robbery.

The felony murder rule applies to several other violent felonies. A felony murder is considered a first-degree murder if the underlying felony includes any of the following felonies: arson, rape, robbery, burglary, carjacking, train wrecking, mayhem, kidnapping, or any act punishable under section 206 (torture), 286, 288, 288a, or 289 (various sex offenses). For any other crime that's "inherently dangerous to human life," a felony murder is treated as a second degree.

Criminal justice advocates harshly criticized this (old) felony murder rule and considered unfair on the part of the defendants who were accomplices to the other defendant (actual killer) and had no idea that a murder would be committed, but still serving decades—even life—in prison.

The new felony murder rule applies to defendants that were accused of a felony under the old law. So, all the people who have already been convicted of a felony murder based on the old law may now petition a court to try and vacate their murder conviction or get a reduced sentence based on the new law.

Before you begin the petitioning process to vacate your murder conviction, it is important to understand what this action can and cannot accomplish clearly. It might be hard for a layperson to understand if the change in murder conviction laws would affect their or a loved one’s case. It is best to contact a lawyer who knows your case or has been a specialist in criminal law in California to get the best advice on this.

What is Senate Bill 1437 Under California Law?

California Governor Jerry Brown, on September 30, 2018, signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 1437, which sets forth new laws on the crime of felony murder in the state of California. Written under California Penal Code Section 1170.95, this criminal justice reform law has been in effect since January 1, 2019. The new law applies to all current and future cases in the trial courts as well as to the cases that are still on appeal.

Titled as "Accomplice liability for felony murder," SB 1437 is a criminal justice reform law that has changed the definition of murder as well as the basis for someone to be convicted of murder. Specifically, SB 1437 amends the old felony murder rule—a centuries-old legal doctrine—which stated that people could be charged with a murder that caused a death only on their participation in a felony or an attempted felony—even if they did not kill a person or have zero intent to kill anyone. This felony-murder rule had ruined many lives who may have made committed other crimes, for which they should be punished, but never had even imagined of harming, let alone killing anyone, by their crime. Such persons should certainly not be treated or punished as murderers.

Under California Senate Bill 1437, the new felony murder rule in California limits the prosecution for felony murder to only those who have actually killed or shown an intent to kill. As per the amendments to the felony murder law, if you are not the actual killer, you cannot be presumed to have acted “malice” just because you were part of a time and based on that charged guilty of murder. However, the law has its limitations. You can be charged with a first-degree felony murder if you directly killed a person in the act of felony or an attempted felony; or if you assisted or abetted the actual killer in the commission of murder while showing an intent to kill another person; or if you were a crucial contributor in the felony and did act with reckless indifference to life.

One thing that the SB 1437 highlighted that now the prosecutor has to prove a greater aspect of your intention to make a killing unlike in the case of the old felony murder law where the prosecutor only depended on the fact that a person was killed and you have aided in the commission or committed the felony.  

However, if the victim in the felony murder is a peace officer performing his or her official duties, then also you will be convicted for murder charges and marked ineligible to seek SB 1437 relief by the court.

The intent of the California legislature behind the enactment of this rule was to ascertain that criminal judgments are addressed rightfully according to the liability of the individual while playing a role in managing prison overcrowding. Before enactment of the SB 1437 rule, California law did not allow those convicted of murder to file a judgment petition.

However, it is essential to realize that you should not file a petition to vacate your murder conviction or resentence under SB 1437 unless you have a belief that you are eligible for there could be an additional penalty of perjury in rare cases. It can also lead to more complications at a future parole hearing.

Requirements for Filing a Petition to Have a Murder Conviction Vacated

Under the California PC 1170.5, some rules and requirements are standard to meet the eligibility criteria for a defendant to petition in the court. Although the law does not set any deadline to file your petition, a defendant in California needs to meet the following requirements:

  • The prosecutor can proceed against you under the theory of “felony murder” or “natural and probable consequences.”
  • Your conviction was due to a first or second-degree murder, or you pleaded guilty in lieu of a trial
  • You cannot be convicted of first or second-degree felony murder after the new changes presented by SB 1437 rule in California’s murder law

Furthermore, it is essential to mention that SB 1437 does not obliterate the so-called felony murder rule, but makes a minor amendment to it. This new law has simply revised the felony murder rule in order to narrow its scope in place of its broad scope of application.

The SB 1437 rule applies retroactively to provide relief for those persons who are currently serving a sentence but could no longer be convicted for murder. This also means that people who would pass SB 1437 rule, can now petition to vacate a murder conviction and replace it with a new sentence.

Furthermore, it is also important to understand how petitioning to vacate a judgment in a murder conviction is different from a motion to vacate a judgment on a criminal conviction. Most people would not realize the difference here. The Governor of California introduced an Assembly Bill 2867 as an amendment to Cal PC 1473.7 law on criminal convictions on September 27, 2018. As per the new law, you can request the court to overrule a previous judgment, which means you can ask the court to withdraw a criminal conviction by showing evidence of a prejudicial error. A prejudicial error will only be considered a determining factor if it has destroyed your ability to be charged or prosecuted. However, the AB 2827 provides no exception for individuals accused of murder convictions. Those with murder convictions cannot ask the court to withdraw their judgments. 

Also, motions are typically applications submitted to a court, in oral or written form, requesting an order or judgment in a court case that is awaiting a decision, while a petition is filed to initiate a legal proceeding. In case of asking for vacating a murder conviction, you must submit a written petition application, not a motion.

Process for Petitioning to Vacate a Judgment on Murder Conviction

If you meet all the eligibility criteria and have decided to submit a petition for yourself or a loved one, you should file it in the same county court where the conviction occurred. You (or your attorney) will also need to serve petition copies to the district attorney (DA) and the public defender or another defense attorney who represented you in the sentencing court. If the judge who formerly sentenced you is unavailable, the presiding judge will appoint a different judge to deliver a verdict based on the petition. A petition must include:

  • Your court case number and year of conviction
  • A declaration that you meet the three eligibility requirements for relief under SB 1437 (Cal PC 1170.85)
  • A statement of whether you request the appointment of counsel

Once you have filed a petition from your end, the California court will review it and confirms your shown eligibility. If the court finds the required information missing or is unable to ascertain straight away, the court may reject the petition application and advice the petitioner to collect all the information necessary to file a petition. Thankfully, you can file a petition again after you retrieve all the required information.

The DA will have an opportunity for filing a response to your petition within 60 days while your attorney will have a chance to submit a reply to it inside 30 days. In some cases, the court may grant extensions for responses and replies if any of the two groups establish a good cause.

Once a judge issues an order to show cause, the court must hold a formal hearing based on which it would be decided that whether the conviction judgment should be vacated or granted resentencing. On the other hand, the prosecution and the petitioner may mutually agree to waive the trial hearing and lay down that the petitioner is qualified to have his or her murder conviction vacated. Similarly, the jury may also vacate the petitioner of the murder conviction if a new finding in the case proves that either the petitioner was neither a major participant nor acted with reckless indifference to life.

In the petition hearing, the ‘burden of proof’ will be on the prosecution (DA). If the prosecution team wishes to stop a conviction from being vacated, it would need to demonstrate the individual’s ineligibility beyond a reasonable doubt. If the district attorney can hold the burden and prove that you are ineligible for relief under SB 1437, then the petitioner will not have a murder conviction judgment vacated and/or resentenced. The prosecutor’s side must include legal standards, such as reasonable suspicion, reasonable indications, probable cause, and beyond a reasonable doubt, to convict a petitioner in a murder crime.

On the other hand, if the district attorney fails to sustain the burden of proof or any allegations and attached enhancements to the conviction, the prior murder conviction by the court shall be vacated, and you shall be resentenced on the outstanding charges.

Your lawyer and the prosecution both should rely on the record of the conviction trial and/or produce new or additional evidence at the hearing to meet their respective burdens of proof. If you have been resentenced, then you must get be given credit for the time you have served previously.

According to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as a petitioner of criminal prosecution, you will be entitled to the Sixth Amendment rights. Being a criminal defendant, filing a petition to vacate a murder conviction, you have the right to a speedy public trial before an impartial jury consisting of members from the state and district in which the crime was allegedly committed. A public trial is held in the presence of regular citizens, family and friends, and the press. The eligibility to Sixth Amendment rights allows you to recognize the nature of criminal charges and evidence sustained by the prosecutor. You can also file a lawsuit against different parties for the cause of unwarranted delays in your case.

Other Legal Options for Defendants of Murder Convictions

The SB 1437 rule with the new law for felony-murder case is a recent addition to the legal remedies for California murder convictions. Other legal options which murder convicts can use may include:

Application for a Governor’s Pardon. Those who have been convicted of a crime in California may apply for a Governor’s pardon, which may be granted only to people who have completed their sentences and demonstrated proof that they have reformed and living a law-abiding life following their conviction. Receiving a Governor’s pardon is considered an honor and relieves the recipient of almost all of the penalties and restore rights related to a criminal conviction. While a murder conviction vacated by the court will no more be counted as a previous criminal conviction for a subsequent offense, if the Governor absolves your conviction, it will stay on the history of your criminal records and will be counted as a prior when convicted of a similar offense.

Applicants must have been discharged from parole or probation for at least ten (10) years without any criminal activity in those ten (10) years. There are a few possible ways of receiving a Governor’s pardon. You may apply to the Superior Court in the residing county for a Certificate of Rehabilitation (COR), receive a pardon recommendation by the board (Board of Parole Hearings), or file a direct application for the pardon with the office of the Governor.

Appealing for a Murder Conviction. You may also file an appeal in a higher court in California to review the judgment of your conviction in the lower court. However, the appeal process in California doesn’t include considering new evidence, hearing testimony from different witnesses, or retrying the murder case. In the appeal proceeding, the higher court, along with the jurors of the lower court, will look at the legal proceedings to check for judicial errors. Following your conviction in a trial court, you have 30 to 60 days for submission of the Notice of Appeal. Typically, appealing for a murder conviction is a more complex and lengthy process when compared to filing a petition to vacate a murder conviction.

Find an Orange County Criminal Lawyer Specializing in Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction Near Me

Having a criminal record can present obstacles in life, further complicate legal issues, and may affect you in different aspects of personal and professional life. If you or a loved one is facing problems as a result of a prior murder conviction and want to vacate the conviction judgment by the court, you must seek assistance from a professional and experienced criminal defense law firm like Orange County Criminal Lawyer. We have a team of skilled criminal defense lawyers that have handled complicated cases in criminal court. We treat each case in a personalized manner and can help in having your murder conviction vacated or resentenced. We provide top-notch legal service by evaluating your situation and develop the best strategy in your interest. Call our firm at 714-262-4833 to get a free consultation of your petition to vacate a murder conviction case and to speak to one of our expert legal experts to learn more about how we can make the difference in your case.