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Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact California Second Degree Murder Convictions


San Diego, CA -- (SBWIRE) -- 07/20/2015 -- For many people convicted of Second Degree Murder, the United States Supreme Court has just activated a light at the end of the tunnel. In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court found that the definition of "serious drug offenses" or "violent felonies" as used in the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. So what does this mean for California's Second Degree Murder cases?

According to Evan Lee of UC Hastings School of Law, the "At issue in Johnson was part of the definition of what constitutes a "violent felony." That part of the definition is what is known as "the Residual Clause," which "includes as a strike any felony that 'involves conducts that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

In California, the Second Degree Murder Felony Murder Rule requires that the underlying felony be "inherently dangerous to human life," says Lee. California measures "inherent dangerousness" based on an abstract hypothetical commission of the offense — not the actual facts. In other words, Lee says, whether the felony is sufficiently risky to qualify for a felony-murder depends on how judges imagine the felony, not how the defendant actually committed it. This brings the rule squarely within the prohibition of Johnson. The second degree felony murder rule must now be unconstutional.

Lee says, "Going forward, the California Supreme Court can rescue the rule by shifting to the approach followed by every other state by evaluating the actual facts surrounding the commission of the felony."

However, until the State Supreme Court makes a determination of what conduct underlies the second degree murder to constitute "inherently dangerous" the interpretation will be open.

It is now more important for people who believe they may have been convicted under the unconstitutional law to contact a lawyer to review their conviction. As history shows, when the United States Supreme Court or the Legislature open a window, California Appellate Court's will find a way to limit that gap.

We saw this with many examples:

- Cunninham v. California (where the Supreme Court declared the upper term sentencing to be unconstitutional, the Legislature rewrote the sentencing laws.)

- Prop. 36 was enacted by the People, limiting the use of a third felony for purposes of imposing a 25 years to life- Appellate Court's limited the relief available by construing the wording of the statue in favor of upholding sentences and using unwritten factors to find someone ineligible based on prison conduct.

- SB260 was enacted declaring natural life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional. Appellate Court's differed as to what constituted "natural life" some finding 65 years, others 30 years. These interpretations limited the application of SB260.

- Prop. 47 was enacted to reduce several felonies to misdemeanors, yet allowed court's to consider in custody conduct. Appellate Court's differed as to what prison conduct was relevant, and how to apply that conduct to determining risk to society if released.

All of these examples highlight the dangers of not moving forward to have a case reviewed by competent counsel who is familiar with Johnson v. United States. The Supreme Court has given California an out, they can re-evaluate the underlying felony to determine whether or not the actual conduct is "inherently dangerous."

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