San Jose Official Aims to Abolish California Felony Murder Law

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A San Jose official aims to abolish the California felony murder law that sentences convicts to life in prison and has the authority to give them the death sentence even if they were not directly responsible for another person’s murder.

With Senator Dave Cortese’s proposed bill that will be introduced next week, he proposes to allow thousands of inmates to apply for a new sentence. The official said the state’s law unfairly sentenced low-profile criminals with harsh punishments despite not causing the death of any victims.

California Felony Murder Law

“Our felony murder laws are emblematic of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today. Californians may not realize that people who did not commit murder are being charged for murder and are being given harsher punishments than those that did,” Cortese said.

The Felony Murder Elimination Project conducted a study that found more than 5,100 California inmates were serving life sentences with no chance of parole due to the law. The records showed that many of the convicts were first-time offenders and were aged an average of 19 years old during the time of their sentencing.

The study also found that nearly 72% of the criminals were first-time offenders, including Tony Vigeant, a Marine, who was only 20 years old when he got involved in an incident that quickly turned fatal. Authorities charged the suspect with robbery, burglary, and first-degree murder. However, Vigeant was not responsible for the death of the victim.

This year, Vigeant will be 35 years old and will be given a life sentence with no chance of parole at Mule Creek State Prison. Joanne Scheer, the suspect’s mother, is the founder of the Felony Murder Elimination Project.

“Horrified that my only child was labeled a murderer and sentenced to die in prison, I became determined that this should never happen to another child. I had never heard of the felony murder rule, much less special circumstances or life without parole,” Scheer said.

Scheer has spent the last 15 years working as a criminal justice reform advocate. She quickly noticed that many Black and Brown people were unfairly affected by the law, despite being White herself.

“It has been devastating to witness the massive impact this law has had on so many individuals and their families and communities. As I’ve met families in prison visiting rooms, I couldn’t help but notice the racial disparity of those who are sentenced to life without parole,” said Scheer.

Black woman Tammy Garvin-Cooper was charged under California’s felony murder law more than 30 years ago as an accomplice to a crime. She has since been locked up and was freed with Governor Jerry Brown’s support.

“I was incarcerated for 28 years for someone else’s actions under California’s unjust felony murder laws. If I wasn’t granted clemency three years ago, I would still be sentenced to die in prison,” Garvin-Cooper said in support of Cortese’s proposed bill.

Black and Latinx people make up more than two-thirds of the state’s inmates who have been jailed to life without parole under the felony murder law, Cortese said. People who support the law argue that the unjust criminal justice system was disproportionately targeting people of color, San Jose Spotlight reported.

“Vengeance, anger, prosecutorial impulses to dole out the worst conceivable punishments, and the dehumanization of Black and Brown communities underlying it all, allowed this irrational and unjust law to persist for decades,” the executive director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, Raj Jayadev, said.

Jayadev said the residents were observing the unfair results of the criminal justice system and went against the belief that putting more people in jail reduced the number of crimes.

Danielle Joyce Ong

Danielle is a local journalist with a passion for exploring stories related to crime and politics. When Danielle isn't busy writing or reading, she is usually exploring the great outdoors and all the hiking trails in the Bay.