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

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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.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 It's called felony murder, a law that allows people to be convicted of murders they were present for, but did not actually commit. California changed the law this year, giving these prisoners a chance to get their sentences reduced, but now the new laws being challenged in court by district attorneys including San Diego Summer, Stephen KPBS, investigative reporter Claire Traeger, Sir tells us about one man convicted under the old felony murder law.

Speaker 2: 00:26 This was a, that was right. Yeah, that's right. Before he was arrested, Coleen Khalifa has spread out photos of our son, Sean on the kitchen table. Her daughter Jennifer and grandson Jackson lean over the table to look. Jackson worth Uncle Shawn [inaudible], candy aide. Sean Khalifa is in Donovan State Prison. Yes, he's 15 years into a sentence of 25 years to life for murder, but no one is claiming he killed anyone. When, when Sean was first arrested, I've called people you know, lawyers and I said, felony, any murder? They told me right off the bat, you've lost your going go visit your son. So the rest of his life in prison, he acted as lookout for two older teenagers. When they robbed a house and killed the homeowner, though Sean Khalifa had no idea they were going to kill the man and wasn't in the house when the murder took place. He was still convicted of felony murder.

Speaker 2: 01:28 This is because of a long established legal doctrine in California that allows prosecutors to file felony murder charges against suspects. Even if like Khalifa, they weren't directly involved in the killing, but late last year then governor Jerry Brown signed a law that allows prisoners in this position to apply for a lesser sentence. The khalifas now have hope, but they're still not sure Sean will be free. That's because district attorneys are challenging the new law in court and we've, it's been a huge rollercoaster. Yeah, I mean, we get our hopes up and we're letting you know, and the pain all comes back again because we're let down

Speaker 3: 02:10 and I've had some hope at different points from my incarceration.

Speaker 2: 02:13 This is Sean Khalifa on the phone from prison.

Speaker 3: 02:16 I have this newfound hope. It's, uh, it can be stressful,

Speaker 2: 02:20 stressful because he feels stuck in a permanent state of limbo. It's extraordinary to have this hope of getting out, but at the same time, that increases one's vulnerability tremendously. Alan Mobley runs project rebound, which helps people transition out of prison and earn college degrees. He considers the felony murder rule that put Khalifa away, a byproduct of the mass incarceration era. Many laws I'm draconian in nature, um, were brought into existence in response to both the politicalization and then also increased public concern. In recent years. 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. I've completely believe in safe reform. I just don't believe in unsafe reform that tramples over a victim's rights. San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan feels the changes to the felony murder rule go to far criminal justice reform has to weigh the constitutional rights of everybody, of victims, of offenders, of public safety, but some see juveniles with life sentences as victims, victims of a harsh system and of human brain development.

Speaker 4: 03:43 Yeah, some adolescents are, um, likely to take risks.

Speaker 2: 03:49 Terry Jernigan runs the Center for human development at UC San Diego and leads a national study looking at adolescents, brains,

Speaker 4: 03:56 young people during adolescents. Do you have a perfectly natural spike in their impulsive behaviors? And this does result in more mistakes in judgment.

Speaker 2: 04:07 And she says, court sentences should take that into consideration, though she didn't know about Khalifa's particular case back at the Khalifa household, Coleen is ready for her son to come home. I can't believe that he's kept his integrity still intact. And his, his, uh, empathy and passion for others. Claire [inaudible] KPBS news KPBS reached out to the family of the man who was killed and did not hear back.

Speaker 5: 04:40 Uh.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.