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California Appeals Court Keeps Limitations To Felony Murder Rule In Place

Shawn Khalifa, right, an inmate at Donovan State Prison, is shown in this undated photo.
Colleen Khalifa
Shawn Khalifa, right, an inmate at Donovan State Prison, is shown in this undated photo.

A California appellate court Tuesday denied San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan’s challenge to a new state law that struck down the so-called "felony murder rule," which allowed prosecutors to charge people with murder even if they weren’t directly responsible for the crime.

The law, SB 1437, mandates that people can't be convicted of murder unless they were the actual killer, helped the killer, or "acted with reckless indifference to human life."

California Appeals Court Keeps Limitations To Felony Murder Rule In Place
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Stephan challenged that law, saying it subverts voter-approved propositions 7 and 115 that set mandatory minimums for certain violent felonies, including murder. The 4th District Court of Appeals rejected that argument.

"The voters who approved Proposition 7 and Proposition 115 got, and still have, precisely what they enacted—stronger sentences for persons convicted of murder and first degree felony-murder liability for deaths occurring during the commission or attempted commission of specified felony offenses," wrote Justice Judith McConnell in the published opinion. "By enacting Senate Bill 1437, the Legislature has neither undermined these initiatives nor impinged upon the will of the voters who passed them."

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

A spokesman for Stephan said her office is currently reviewing the decision.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who wrote SB 1437, said in a statement that the court's ruling means "justice won."

"The appellate court got it right: SB 1437, which reformed California’s old, unfair felony-murder rule, is clearly constitutional," Skinner said. "With this decisive decision, I urge district attorneys throughout California to drop their challenges and join with (California Attorney General) Xavier Becerra in enforcing the state’s new felony-murder statute."

SB 1437 also allows people previously convicted of murder under the felony murder rule to apply for resentencing. Kate Chatfield, the senior advisor for legislation and policy at the advocacy organization The Justice Collaborative who helped write the law, said there isn't a good tracking system, but she estimates up to 800 people in California could be eligible for reduced sentences under the law.

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One of them is Shawn Khalifa, who is in Donovan State Prison serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder. But Khalifa didn't kill anyone — instead, when he was 15 years old he acted as a lookout while two young men robbed a home and ended up killing the homeowner.

Reached by phone on Wednesday after the appeals court ruling, Khalifa said when he first heard the news, he didn't believe it until he talked to his mother, who confirmed it.

"I'm ecstatic, I'm going home, I'm going home for real this time," he said. "Before they'd say, oh, you get to go home, but then things would change. Now I know I'm going home."

Next Khalifa will wait for a judge to resentence him, which could happen as early as next month.

"I could potentially be home for Christmas," he said.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.