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

 August 8, 2019 at 11:15 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 There are lots of stories of people in prison for murders. They say they didn't commit, but one of the core degrees, the person didn't take part in the killing, but sentences him for murder. Anyway, that was the reality for California prisoners under the felony murder rule. A new law this year was supposed to change that, but KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, Sir says that change is on hold. Speaker 2: 00:24 Hi. Uh, I was some other kids in my neighborhood, but I thought they were going to burglarize at home. Speaker 1: 00:30 This is Sean Khalifa describing the biggest mistake of his life. Speaker 2: 00:35 I thought maybe I could go steal something from the house. Speaker 1: 00:38 It was January, 2004 and Sean was just a few days past his 15th birthday. He and a friend acted as lookouts while the other two boys went into the house according to court documents Speaker 2: 00:51 and a few seconds later the door opens and the 18 year old kid, one Pena. He grabs me by the shirt and pulls me in the house and he's yelling. He's like, is this what you wanted to see? Is this what she wanted to see? [inaudible]. I look over to where he's pointing and Mr Levin is is dead on his living room floor. Speaker 1: 01:09 The two boys had savagely tortured and beat 77 year old Hubert love to death. According to court documents, Khalifa swears he had no idea his friends could commit such heinous acts. However, he also takes responsibility for getting into that situation. Looking back, Khalifa admits he was a thief and ran with a bad crowd Speaker 2: 01:33 for me to be comfortable with the point of leaving Mr. Love on his floor. Clearly something was wrong with me and I had a criminal way of thinking. Speaker 1: 01:41 Khalifa was convicted of first degree murder even though he had no prior knowledge of the killings and wasn't in the house when they were committed. He was sentenced to 25 years to life and spent three years in juvenile hall. Then was transferred to Donovan State Prison in San Diego. He is serving the sentence because of 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 one participant goes off arc. These are her out and kill her buddy. All participants are equally liable for first degree murder. Kate Chatfield is an adviser at the Criminal Justice Advocacy Organization, the justice collaborative. She says, a new California law limited the rule. It says people can't be convicted of murder unless they were the actual killer. Helped the killer or quote acted with reckless indifference to human life. Speaker 1: 02:42 For example, someone who participates in a robbery where a clerk is killed and let's say that young man takes out his gun and shoots it a bunch of times or waves it around, fires it off, and you know Mrs the clerk, the new law says people sentenced under the felony murder rule can apply for re-sentencing as you towards 37 is not just a get out of jail free card. For people who are in prison, they have to petition the Superior Court. Chatfield says 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, but the law has powerful opponents who are challenging it in court, essentially allows people to get away with murder and the more sophisticated they are of a killer, the more they're going to get away with murder. San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan is one of several California das contesting the law in court. Speaker 1: 03:42 If they all wear masks and you can determine who shot the gun, then all three or four or two will get away with murder, but this doesn't describe what Khalifa did. He helped a robbery that turned into a murder. Stephan says there are other ways people like him can get reduced sentences when they could petition for re sentencing if they truly had a lesser role. But Khalifa has asked the Riverside courts for a lesser sentence multiple times and has been denied. Tomorrow we'll talk about what it has been like to grow from a boy into a man while behind bars. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, Sir and Claire, welcome. Thank you. Why was the old felony murder law changed by the state legislature? Well, it's part of a broader push toward criminal justice reform that's going on at a nationwide level and in the state. Speaker 1: 04:42 Um, and I think legislators were just looking for laws on the books that they feel key people in prison unjustly or maybe for too long. And so this law was proposed by Nancy Skinner, who is a Democrat from Berkeley, and she says it's unfair to have people like Sean Khalifa who are maybe serving life sentences, are very long sentences for murders, that they didn't participate in the killing and Skinner stress that the law doesn't apply to people who are accessories to murder. She says if people helped in the killing in any way, then this new law doesn't apply to them and they can't get lesser sentences. You were telling the story of a young man who was caught up under the old law. Did Sean have no defense back then by saying he just waited outside when the murder was committed? Well, he did. I think there's a few things to keep in mind. Speaker 1: 05:32 One is that he was 15 years old and he was interviewed without a parent or without a lawyer. And the other part is that under the felony murder rule, it actually didn't matter that he was outside because he was part of this violent felony, the home invasion and someone was killed. That's really all you need to then be charged with felony murder. So his admission that he was there was pretty much enough for that. And I should also note that he did not agree to testify against that. The other teenagers who were involved and the other boy who was with him did, and he got a much lesser sentence. Okay. So for someone to qualify for recent and saying, now that the law has changed, what do they have to show? So they petition their local court system for resentencing and then there's what amounts to basically a new trial where both sides can present evidence, even new evidence that wasn't in the original trial. Speaker 1: 06:28 And prosecutors provide their version of what happened. And then they have the chance to argue that maybe the defendant was more involved in the murder. So, so the new law wouldn't apply to them. And I believe the way the law is written is that the burden is on the prosecutors to prove that and who makes the final decision. So then the court makes the final decision about whether the law change applies to the person and they can get a reduced sentence. Now Apparently San Diego County da Summer Stephan doesn't like this new law, SB 1437 what does she say is the advantage to society of convicting people of first degree murder who didn't kill anybody? Yeah, so she really focused her argument against the, the new law on what she says is this loophole that it creates. Basically she says if there's a group of people there and one person is killed and you can't tell who did the killing, the new law means that they won't be able to convict anyone of murder. Speaker 1: 07:26 And she has this example of a group of people who are all wearing masks and eye witnesses can't tell who actually fired the gun or did the killing. But I should point out that Nancy Skinner, the lawmaker who wrote the law says, if your only evidence is one person's eye witness testimony, that's not a very strong case to begin with. Um, and then in cases like Shawn Khalifa's summer stuff and says that there are other ways for people like him to get reduced sentences. Is Her office challenging this new law in any way? Yes. So they are saying the new law violates the state constitution, violates a California's mandatory minimum sentencing law. And so they have filed seven petitions with the Fourth District Court of Appeals and the court took two of those cases and is expected to hold oral arguments on them in the coming months. Now today's report is the first of two focusing on the change and the felony murder law and the story of Shawn Khalifa. Speaker 1: 08:23 Give us a preview of tomorrow's report. Okay, so tomorrow I'll talk more about the broader changes to criminal justice reform and how this law fits in. And we'll also hear more from Sean Khalifa and his family about what it's been like to ride. Basically this roller coaster of ups and downs as they hope that he will be released. Um, and we'll also talk to a scientist about human brain development and the differences in juvenile brains and how their decision making is, is very different from adult decision-making. I'd been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter, Claire Targus or Claire. Thank you. Thank you. Speaker 3: 09:03 Okay.

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This year, California became one of the few states in the country to pass legislation limiting felony murder convictions. But the law change has powerful opponents who are challenging it in court.
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