Only a few things are more frustrating than dealing with a murder charge. Considering how strict California murder law is, you will need to go the extra mile to prove your innocence. Failure to which severe penalties await you. A murder conviction could subject you to life imprisonment, sometimes capital punishment, depending on the case facts.

However, the state’s murder law has undergone some changes, and someone convicted of the crime previously has the right to have their conviction reviewed and obtain relief. With the new statute, it is possible that your family member, friend, or loved one does not deserve to be in prison for murder and can petition the court to vacate the sentence. With this petition, the court can review your case and resentence or release you if it finds the petition valid. However, you need expert legal representation to stand a chance of winning your case.

We At Los Angeles Criminal Attorney can help you with this legal process. We are conversant with state murder laws and the changes they have undergone. We also have vast experience assisting clients with post-conviction matters, even those related to murder. You can therefore be confident that we will provide you with the help you need. Call us for a consultation if you believe you have a case.

What Is a Petition to Vacate Murder Conviction?

Under the old state felony-murder rule, if a person participated in a felonious act and somebody was killed in the process, they would be prosecuted for felony murder even if they never intended to kill the victim or played only a minor role in the crime. A person would be charged and convicted whether or not they directly killed the victim.

For example, suppose you break into a liquor store to steal beer. As you run out with it, the clerk starts chasing you. They pull out a gun and shoot at you to stop you, but miss and hit a bystander in the parking lot, killing them. In this case, you would be charged with murder, despite not being the actual killer, never intending for a person to be killed, and not being the primary participant in the murder.

This law resorted in unfair murder convictions, so it was changed on September 30, 2018, when the then Governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed SB (Senate Bill) 1437 into law. SB 1437 brought significant changes to felony murder and murder under the probable and natural consequences doctrine. It brought the new felony-murder rule, which provides that a person is only guilty of murder if they directly killed a person, intended for the person to be killed, or played a significant role in the killing.

The new felony-murder rule applies retroactively, meaning if your loved one was convicted under the old felony-murder rule, they could file a petition to vacate their murder conviction and be released from prison. PC 1170.95 is language within SB 1437. It permits defendants previously found guilty of felony murder or murder under probable and natural consequences doctrine to seek vacation of their conviction and have it removed provided they meet one of the bill’s criteria:

  • They were not the real killer.
  • They did not intend to kill
  • They were not the primary participant in the murder that acted with wanton disregard for human life.

Before SB 1437, accused persons could be prosecuted under the natural, probable consequences doctrine, meaning two people perpetrated a felony. Even if one person murdered the victim, the other person could also face murder charges. The current PC 1170.95 states that you are not guilty of murder simply because you took part in a felony offense where someone else was killed.

To vacate in legal language means to overrule or render something null and void. If your conviction is vacated, it will be deleted from your criminal record. You will need to petition the court in adherence to the state’s murder laws to stand a chance of having your conviction vacated.

Eligibility for Petitioning to Vacate Murder Conviction

If convicted of a murder, you may qualify to petition the court to vacate your conviction if:

  • You were prosecuted for murder under the natural, probable consequences doctrine or felony murder statute,
  • You agreed to a plea deal instead of going to trial or were found guilty of murder in the second or first degree after a court trial, and
  • You would not be found guilty of murder under the new felony murder statute.

However, although 1170.95 PC avails relief to murder convicts, there are exceptions. Essentially, you are unqualified for 1170.95 PC relief if:

  • You were the real killer
  • You participated significantly in the crime and acted with wanton disregard for human life.
  • The victim in question was a police or peace officer in the line of duty
  • You were not the killer but aided and abetted the killer, who intended to commit the crime.

Bringing the Actual Petition

To request that your murder conviction be vacated under 1170.95 PC, you must bring a petition before the court that convicted and sentenced you, stating why your conviction should be ruled null and void under SB 1437. You must also serve a copy of the petition papers to the prosecutor of that court. If the court judge previously in charge of your case is absent, the court will appoint another judge for your petition. Your petition must contain the following information:

  • The year the conviction took place and the case number.
  • The affirmation that you satisfy all the eligibility conditions for relief per 1170.95 PC because you meet the requirements mentioned above
  • Whether you want an attorney to be appointed for you

If the judge cannot verify this info or it is missing, they may deny your petition with no prejudice. The judge will inform you that they cannot pass judgment on your request without the necessary information. Luckily, everything is still ongoing if the petition is denied on these grounds. You can still re-petition once you gather the information that was missing.

If the judge reviews your petition and finds you eligible, it will hold a trial. The judge will allow the prosecutor to file their response to your request, and your lawyer will submit a rejoinder. The judge will also rule whether the case should be subjected to a court proceeding. The prosecution and defense side should base their arguments on the murder conviction record. That is, they should challenge/support the conviction record with evidence.

If the prosecuting attorney fails to support your conviction beyond any reasonable doubt, the court will find that you should not be guilty under the new law. It will vacate your murder conviction and resentence you on the rest of the charges on the case. Defendants who are re-sentenced often receive credit for the period they have already served. And if there are no other charges on the case, the judge will direct that you be released. You will require a skilled murder defense lawyer to increase your chances of winning your petition.

The Burden of Proof in Petitions to Vacate Murder Conviction

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is the obligation someone has to substantiate their claims. This means that one party must show they are correct, whereas the other party does not have that burden and is presumed to be correct.

As far as petitions to vacate murder convictions are concerned, the burden to prove the case lies with the prosecutor. The judge will need the prosecution to prove beyond any reasonable doubt why they (the judge) should not vacate your conviction. Beyond any reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof that applies to criminal cases. Other standards of proof are clear and convincing evidence and a preponderance of the evidence.

The Timelines Involved

The prosecutor in your case must file their response to your petition within sixty days from when they are served the petition papers. You, on the contrary, will have an opportunity to file your rejoinder within thirty days from the date the prosecution responds. If you or the prosecution show good cause, the court may extend the deadline to file responses. Once the court issues an order to show cause, the judge must schedule a court hearing within sixty days to determine whether to vacate your murder conviction or re-sentence you.

However, you may agree with the prosecution to waive the hearing, making you qualified for the vacation of your conviction. This will further apply if the judge finds you did not play a primary role in the murder or act with wanton disregard for a person's life.

During the proceeding, the prosecutor must prove you do not satisfy the requirements to be resentenced or have your conviction vacated. If they fail to establish this, the judge will vacate your conviction or resentence you on the remaining charges. You and the prosecution can refer to the hearing or trial transcripts and submit new evidence.

Should you be awarded relief, but your charges were generic, and the target crime was not prosecuted, the judge must reclassify the conviction as the target crime for re-sentencing purposes. Additionally, if you are resentenced, you should receive credit for the time you have already served. The court might order parole for up to thirty-six months after your sentence.

How a Lawyer Can Help in Your Petition

You need a lawyer to help you when requesting to vacate your conviction. An experienced lawyer can make a significant difference between a successful petition and the judge denying your request. Here is how they can help you:

  • Help you interpret the complex law— California law is intricate and contains various provisions that can be difficult to understand. In particular, if you have been convicted of other felony crimes, it can be challenging to persuade the court that you deserve your murder sentence to be vacated. A lawyer is conversant with legal matters and can assist you in regaining your freedom. Criminal lawyers handle a wide range of cases, which gives them extensive experience with the local courts and judges. It is undoubtedly that a skilled lawyer has previously handled post-conviction matters, including petitions to vacate murder conviction, and can help you with yours.
  • Handle all the legal technicalities— when petitioning the court, you must provide particular info like the case number, when the conviction or sentencing took place, and the required evidence. Additionally, your petition documents should be in order and filed on time. Failure to which the court may deny your request. Since you may not know the deadlines or the information required, your lawyer will help you compile and present all the necessary documents and evidence. They will also ensure you meet all the deadlines for filing your petition, increasing your chances of success.
  • Provide legal representation and advice— worried about what may happen if you lose your petition, you may be incapable of arguing your case effectively to prove that the judge should vacate your conviction. A skilled lawyer will take the burden off you and ensure they obtain the best possible outcome for you. They will present the evidence most effectively and negotiate with the prosecuting team on your behalf.

Other Post-Conviction Remedies for Murder

In California, petitioning to have a murder conviction vacated is the most recent post-conviction relief option available. Other relief options that have been in existence include seeking a Governor's pardon, requesting a sentence reduction, and appealing the murder sentence.

Petition for Sentence Reduction

Besides allowing the vacation of a murder sentence, Senate Bill 1437 also allows you to petition the court seeking reduction of your murder sentence. For a sentence reduction to be possible, you need to petition the court that sentenced you and serve the petition papers to the prosecutor of that court. In the petition, you must declare you qualify to have your sentence reduced. Eligibility conditions for a reduced sentence and those for the vacation of a murder conviction are the same.

Once the court establishes that you qualify, they will conduct a hearing. The prosecutor's job is to prove that you do not deserve your sentence to be reduced. They must demonstrate this beyond a reasonable doubt. Should they fail, the judge will grant your request to reduce your murder sentence.

Court Recall

A court may recall your murder conviction within a hundred and twenty days after sentencing you without bringing a motion for resentencing or petitioning for vacation. Should a judge recall your sentence, they have to order resentencing. The sentence should be shorter than the previous one. Before it can recall your sentence, the court considers several factors, including

  • Your interest in seeking justice.
  • Your ability to commit another violation in the future.
  • The danger you pose to the community.
  • Your disciplinary record.
  • Your rehabilitation records.

Filing for an Appeal

Trial for criminal cases take in trial courts (superior courts), and judgments are delivered there. If defendants are not satisfied with the superior court's judgment, they can appeal to a higher court, the court of appeal/appellate court. Like other cases, you can also appeal a murder case if you feel unsatisfied with the superior court’s judgment.

The appeal process does not entail a defendant presenting additional testimony or new evidence for the case. Also, it does not entail retrying the case. The appellate court is only tasked with re-examining the trial record and looking to see whether the superior court made any procedural mistakes.

If you appeal your murder case and win, the following may occur:

  • The original decision of the superior court will be reversed.
  • The court will order that a new trial takes place.
  • Your case will be sent back to the superior court for it to rectify the mistakes it made.

You have sixty days from the conviction date to file a Notice of Appeal. This timeframe and all the others governing the appeal process must be strictly complied with, meaning failing to meet them will jeopardize your case. The appeal process is more complicated and lengthier than petitioning for the vacation of a murder sentence. Some grounds for an appeal include ineffective assistance of counsel, prejudicial error, and a lack of substantive evidence.

Requesting a Governor's Pardon

A pardon from a Governor is an honor the California governor awards to people rehabilitated for a violation. The pardon eliminates most consequences these individuals were subject to after their conviction. The timeframe to seek a Governor's pardon ranges from 7 to 10 years. The timeframe starts running after you complete parole/probation. Anyone found guilty of a crime, including murder, can seek a Governor's pardon.

Once a judge vacates your murder conviction, it will not be considered a prior violation if you are found guilty again of murder. But if you apply for a Governor's pardon and your request is granted, the conviction still reflects on your criminal record. Additionally, it will be deemed a prior conviction if you face a subsequent murder conviction.

You could be granted a Governor's pardon if ten years have elapsed since you completed your parole/probation. You also must not have been convicted of any severe offenses within this period to increase your chances of receiving a pardon.

You apply for a Governor’s pardon by submitting a filled application to the Office of the Governor. You could, though not necessary, submit additional info or copies of applicable documents to support your application, for example, certificates of achievements or letters of support. You have to explain the extraordinary circumstances that warrant your pardon. Ensure not to send original documents since application materials are not returned.

You can also apply for the pardon by submitting a filled Notice of Intent to Apply for Clemency to the D.A. in the county where you were convicted of murder. Another way of seeking a Governor’s pardon is by filing your COR (Certificate of Rehabilitation) in a higher court. Or, the parole board can recommend you for a pardon. Of all the ways of obtaining a pardon, appealing to the Office of the Governor is the most effective.

Vacating Murder Conviction vs. Vacating Criminal Judgment

California PC 1473.7 allows individuals no longer in custody to bring a motion to vacate a judgment. That is, overturn a prior verdict. This law was amended on September 27, 2018, when the then California Governor, Jerry Brown, signed AB (Assembly Bill) 2867 into law to provide relief from a guilty verdict.

According to this law, a judge can withdraw a criminal judgment if there is newly discovered evidence of actual innocence. A judgment can also be withdrawn if a prejudicial error did damage the accused’s capability to defend against, understand, or consciously accept the potential or actual negative immigration repercussions for a no-contest or guilty plea.

The difference between vacating a criminal judgment and vacating a murder conviction is the requirements. While PC 1473.7 requires that there is a prejudicial error and newly discovered evidence to vacate a judgment, the requirements to vacate a murder conviction under PC 1170.95 are different, as mentioned above. Although, this means that you could still seek a previously issued judgment on your murder case to be vacated under PC 1473.7 if you meet the requirements.

Another difference is that a petition to vacate a murder conviction is filed while the defendant is still in custody. On the other hand, a motion to vacate criminal judgment can be brought even if the defendant is out of incarceration.

Contact a Criminal Attorney Lawyer Near Me

If your loved one was sentenced for murder, it might not be the end of the road for them. They may be eligible to petition for the vacation of the conviction. To know if they qualify, you want to consult a murder defense attorney experienced in post-conviction matters.

At Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, we have professional lawyers with in-depth knowledge of post-conviction matters. We will thoroughly review your loved one’s case and available evidence before determining whether they qualify for a petition. If they do, we will help them with the filing process and fight for them to ensure the best possible outcome. Call us at 424-333-0943 for a free consultation, where we will explain the petition filing process and how we can help.