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California's Felony Murder Law Change Means Freedom For San Diego Man

Shawn Khalifa tours the San Diego State University campus, Feb. 18, 2020.
Claire Trageser
Shawn Khalifa tours the San Diego State University campus, Feb. 18, 2020.

San Diego State University’s campus was buzzing on a recent afternoon — students hustling to class by foot, skateboard and scooter. Shawn Khalifa was taking it all in, as a free man.

"Hopefully this isn't too much for you right now," a friend said.

"No, I went to the library earlier and I loved it," he said. "That's Khalifa heaven is a library."

College is one of many things Khalifa missed — he went to prison at age 15 and is now 31. He was touring SDSU with the hopes of enrolling as a student in a few years.

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

After what he called a troubled childhood in Riverside County, Khalifa's life took a dark turn as a teenager when he participated in a home invasion. He acted as a lookout while two of his friends savagely beat the homeowner, Hubert Love, to death, according to court documents.

Khalifa said he knew the plan was to rob Love's home but had no idea they would kill him. But he was still convicted 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 the defendant is not the killer.

But last year brought new hope. A California law removed much of the felony murder rule and allowed prisoners like Khalifa to apply for a lesser sentence.

District attorneys, including San Diego D.A. Summer Stephan, challenged the law change. But this week the California Supreme Court declined to hear their challenge, upholding a lower court ruling that kept the law in place.

VIDEO: California's Felony Murder Law Change Means Freedom For San Diego Man

RELATED: California Appeals Court Keeps Limitations To Felony Murder Rule In Place

That means there's no question Khalifa will remain free.

A spokesman for Stephan said in a statement that her office challenged the law change because they believed it violated the state constitution.

"In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, we can let the families of many murder victims whose cases will be reopened know that the courts have made a determination," the statement said.

The new law was in the works for years. But Khalifa only allowed himself to believe he'd get out a few weeks before he was released.

Shawn Khalifa poses with his mom, sister and nephews after being released from prison, Feb. 5, 2020.
Jennifer Ponce
Shawn Khalifa poses with his mom, sister and nephews after being released from prison, Feb. 5, 2020.

"I started letting it sink in and letting go and starting to embrace the fact that I was going home and it wasn't going to be stopped this time and I got to embody it and feel it," he said. "You could just feel the stress melt off of you when you kind of know you're going home instead of just thinking it's possible."

He said he had not spoken to Love’s family. The family did not respond to a request from KPBS for an interview.

"It would be nice to make living amends and have dialog with them in the future," Khalifa said. "But I understand currently my release is not something that they're excited about or happy about. So I think the best thing is just time."

If he could talk to them, he said he would let them know that the murder is "something I have to live with forever, just knowing that I was I was there, I showed up and that I didn't get him help that day."

After 16 years in prison, missing much of his teenage years and young adulthood, it would make sense that Khalifa might be nervous about adjusting. But, he said, since he's been out of prison it feels like he never left.

"I've always been goofy, I've always liked to make people laugh, I've always been silly," he said. "But before I was a criminal, I thought like a criminal. But now to be out here and to be able to make people laugh, with all the work I've done on myself to come out here now exhibit humbleness, kindness, compassion, helping strangers. I just love it."

Khalifa is currently living in Escondido and sees his mom and sister, who live in Orange County, once a week. He's involved in youth mentorship and will continue working with the Restorative Justice program at Southwestern College, which he began while in prison at Donovan Correctional Facility.

His mom Colleen Khalifa is thrilled to have her son home, and also said she doesn't worry about her son reintegrating into society.

"When I see the look of happiness and joy on his face, and I know who he is and his strong character, I just can't worry about him because I know he's going to be fine," she said.

California's Felony Murder Law Change Means Freedom For San Diego Man
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.