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A Mother Rides A Rollercoaster Of Hope While Her Son Sits In Jail

Photos spread out on the table at Colleen Khalifa's home show her son, Shawn,...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: Photos spread out on the table at Colleen Khalifa's home show her son, Shawn, and daughter, Jennifer, July 9, 2019.

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Shawn Khalifa was sentenced to murder even though he was outside when his friends broke into a Riverside County home and killed a 77-year-old man. A new law could reduce his sentence — but that law is being challenged.

Aired: August 9, 2019 | Transcript

This is the second in a 2 part series on California's felony murder rule. Read part 1 here.

Colleen Khalifa has spread out photos of her son Shawn on the kitchen table of her home in San Juan Capistrano. Her daughter Jennifer, and grandson Jackson, lean over to take a look.

"Jackson where's Uncle Shawn?" Jennifer asks her son.

"At San Diego," he replies.

Shawn Khalifa is in Donovan State Prison. He's 15 years into a sentence of 25 years to life for murder. But no one is claiming he killed anyone.

Reported by Claire Trageser , Video by Andi Dukleth

Khalifa, 30, was sentenced under California's felony murder rule, which allows a defendant to be charged with murder for a killing that happened during a dangerous felony, even if he wasn’t the killer.

RELATED: Hundreds In San Diego Hoping For Reduced Sentences For Murders They Didn’t Commit

In 2004, when Khalifa was 15, he acted as a lookout for two older teenagers during a Riverside County home invasion that turned into a murder. Khalifa said he had no idea his friends were going to kill the 77-year-old homeowner, Hubert Love, and wasn't in the house when the murder took place. Yet, he was still convicted of felony murder.

"When Shawn was first arrested and I called 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," Colleen Khalifa said.

But late last year then Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that allows prisoners in Khalifa's position to apply for a lesser sentence. The Khalifas now have hope, but Shawn Khalifa’s freedom still hangs in the balance. That's because District Attorneys, including San Diego’s Summer Stephan, are challenging the new law in court.

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Collen Khalifa, left, and her daughter Jennifer, talk in their San Juan Capistrano home, July 9, 2019.

"It's been a huge roller coaster," Colleen Khalifa said. "We get our hopes up and then the pain all comes back again because we're let down. So the roller coaster ride has been horrendous."

Shawn Khalifa, on the phone from prison, said there have been several points during his incarceration where he's had hope of release.

"At one point I exhausted my appeals process so I was just reserving myself to spending my life in prison," he said. "So to have this newfound hope, it can be stressful."

It's stressful because he feels stuck in a permanent state of limbo.

"The only thing I can plan for is to be in prison for the rest of my life," Khalifa said. "And that's the only thing that seems to make life bearable and comfortable is to be acclimated to this environment."

So Khalifa has made a life for himself in prison in case he doesn't get out. He’s written books, plays, and has a podcast.

"It's extraordinary to have this hope of getting out, but at the same time, that increases one's vulnerability tremendously to disappointments around setbacks," said Alan Mobley, the director of San Diego State University’s Project Rebound, a program that helps inmates transition out of prison and earn college degrees.

Mobley, who has worked with Khalifa, considers the felony murder law that put him away a byproduct of the mass incarceration era.

"Many laws, draconian in nature, were brought into existence in response to the politicization and increase in public concern about drug use and drug trafficking," he said.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung the other way with national criminal justice reform and state rollbacks to things like three strikes sentencing.

But these changes are often met with resistance, including from prosecutors like Stephan. She and other DAs have filed petitions arguing the change in the felony murder rule violates California's mandatory minimum sentencing law. The Fourth District Court of Appeals took two of those cases and is expected to hold oral arguments on them in the coming months.

Stephan said she says supports criminal justice reform, but feels the changes to the felony murder rule go too far.

"I completely believe in safe reform, I just don't believe in unsafe reform that tramples over a victim's rights," Stephan said. "Criminal justice reform has to weigh the constitutional rights of everybody, of victims, of offenders, of public safety."

Photo credit: Colleen Khalifa

Undated photos of Shawn Khalifa as a child.

But some see juveniles with life sentences as victims — victims of a harsh system and of human brain development.

That's because the brains of teenagers operate very differently from adult brains, said Terry Jernigan, who runs the Center for Human Development at UC San Diego and is leading a national study looking at adolescents' brains.

"It's a dangerous time for many people and some adolescents are likely to take risks," she said. "Young people during adolescence do have a perfectly natural spike in their impulsive behaviors and this does result in more mistakes in judgement."

Though she didn't know about Khalifa's particular case, Jernigan said court sentences should take the differences in adolescents' brains into consideration.

"We know that this is a relatively temporary condition and that the same individuals that will make poor judgments and impulsive decisions that go sideways so to speak will not be prone to make those same kinds of decisions and judgments at a later point," she said.

Back in San Juan Capistrano, Colleen Khalifa is ready for her son to come home.

"Shawn is still Shawn," she said. "Amazingly he's kept who he is in tact. I know he's been through a living hell. I can't believe he's kept his integrity intact and his empathy and passion for others."

She hopes he’ll have the opportunity to display those traits outside the prison walls.

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