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Free at Last! California Modifies Its Felony Murder Law, Helping up to 800 Prisoners Currently Serving Life Sentences

by Ed Lyon

California’s felony murder statute, as originally enacted, is quite draconian in its inclusiveness. A person could be convicted and punished as severely as the primary participant in a felony murder even if the person was not present at the murder scene—they might have been a getaway driver, a lookout, or merely helped plan an offense that resulted in an unplanned death.

California is among 46 states with a felony murder statute as part of its penal code and a subset of 24 that can prosecute it as a capital crime. In 1983, its supreme court opined the law should be abolished stating that it “anachronistically resurrects from a bygone age a ‘barbaric concept.’” Thirty-five years later, in 2018, that court’s hope was finally realized by the people of California in Senate Bill 1437.

The very first felony murder suspect to benefit from Governor Jerry Brown signing S.B. 1437 into law was Neko Wilson. He helped to plan the armed robbery of a Kerman couple in their home, where they managed a marijuana growing operation. Before the robbery, Wilson had second thoughts and opted out of the robbery altogether. His five co-defendants proceeded with the robbery as planned in which Gary and Sandy DeBartolo were killed as a result. Wilson had been held in jail, awaiting trial for felony murder since July 2009, while four of the other participants have already been tried and imprisoned for the offense. All testified at trial that Wilson was not present at the robbery. The alleged actual killer, Leroy Johnson, is docketed for trial in 2019.

Jacque Wilson is a San Francisco public defender. He worked tirelessly for passage of S.B. 1437 through the California Legislature, with the best and most urgent motivation in the world—nine years and four months ago, he had to explain to his and Neko’s father that the state “wanted to kill him [Neko]” as it was seeking the death penalty.

The bill was a bipartisan effort on the parts of Berkeley Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner and Alpine Republican Senator Joel Anderson.

An estimated 400 to 800 felony murder convictees currently serving life sentences for felony murder but were not the actual hands-on killer will be positively affected by S.B. 1437. Specifically among them are Shawn Khalifa who stole chocolate from a man’s home but had no part in the murder and a homeless man, Curtis Brooks, who agreed to assist a friend steal a car during which the car’s owner was shot to death. Both men were only 15 years old when these offenses were committed. Many supporters of S.B. 1437 agree with Senator Skinner in that the previous version of the felony murder law was far too broad and more often than not was used against poor defendants, young people, women, and people of color.

Prosecutors and others within law enforcement decry S.B. 1437’s clearly stated retroactive application. They are pointing to a projected high cost of transporting and jailing convictees for their re-sentencings. Senators Skinner and Anderson replied that at an average of $80,000 per-prisoner per-year cost, the resentencing expenditures will be effectively offset by the sentence reductions effected pursuant to the new law.

On October 18, 2018, Neko Wilson appeared in court on a burglary charge, one punishable by only nine years in prison rather than the felony murder death sentence he could have been assessed. In response, the judge ordered Neko “cancelled” until his return to court for a formal pronouncement of his nine-year sentence later in November. Regarding his brother Neko, Jacque Wilson exclaimed “today he can walk out.”

Thank California almighty, Neko’s free at last! 


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