A murder conviction can attract life imprisonment or the death penalty depending on the facts surrounding the murder case. We (Los Angeles Criminal Attorney) can help you or your loved one explore various options to reduce the sentencing or vacate the conviction. Our lawyers have several years of experience assisting inhabitants of Los Angeles, CA with legal representation and advice. You can count on them to file a petition for vacating a murder conviction as explained in this guide.
Understanding What it Means to Have a Murder Conviction Vacated
The term “vacate,” in the context of criminal law, means to overrule or render something void. In the court, a judgment may be vacated based on an error, which is significant enough to affect its outcome. A court can only vacate your conviction after determining you have met various eligibility requirements. Once your conviction is vacated, you will the conviction erased from the record of your criminal history.
Your lawyer will have to file a motion to the court to make the process of vacating your murder conviction possible. Other parties involved in the petition include the prosecution team who work under the district attorney’s office. Every state in the US has its own laws on vacating criminal judgments. Your petition must comply with the state murder laws for it to be accepted.
What Laws Allow You to Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction in California?
The existing murder laws in California define first-degree murder as a murder crime committed in an attempt to commit various felonies. The felonies include carjacking, rape, arson, kidnapping, mayhem, burglary and robbery. Under the existing law, the prescribed penalties for first-degree murder include life imprisonment in state prison without parole and a prison sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. Second-degree murder attracts penalties such as imprisonment in state prison for 15 years to life.
The Governor of California officially signed Senate Bill 1437 into law after it was passed by the California Legislature. SB 1437, which took effect on 1st January 2019, applies to the ongoing and future murder cases in trial courts and appeal courts. The law allows individuals with murder convictions to petition to a California court for their convictions to be overturned.
Before the enactment of SB 1437, the California murder laws did not have exceptions for people convicted for murder to petition the judgment. SB 1437 offers limits for murder convictions on various legal bases. You should consult a criminal lawyer to know if your murder conviction is affected by this new law.
What Process is Involved in Filing a Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction?
Penal Code 1170.95 highlights the rules for filing a petition for asking to have your murder conviction vacated. Though this law does not give a deadline for filing the petition, you must meet various eligibility requirements. They are as follows:
- The criminal charge against you can be argued by the DA (district attorney) as a “natural and probable consequences” or “felony murder” theory
- Your conviction was based by either a plea or a trial of first-degree murder or second-degree murder
- The new changes introduced by SB 1437 do not allow you to face a murder conviction
Where Can You File the Petition?
Your criminal lawyer should file the petition to vacate a murder conviction in the court in which you were sentenced. The attorney should also serve copies of the petition to the district attorney in the sentencing court. Expect the form to include your court case number, year of conviction and a declaration acknowledging that you adhere to the eligibility requirements.
Your case will proceed to trial only if a California court confirms you have shown eligibility. The DA will have the chance for filing a response while your lawyer files a reply for the same. The court will also determine whether your case deserves a hearing. Both sides (the prosecution team and your lawyer) should rely on your conviction record to challenge or support it.
The court can vacate the murder conviction if the prosecution team fails to prove your ineligibility beyond a reasonable doubt. You may also have the sentencing reduced or resentenced to a shorter term. Usually, individuals who are resentenced get credits for the time they served previoiusly. Judges require them to serve a maximum of three years parole after completing the sentence.
What Can Make You Ineligible for an SB 1437 Relief?
As much as Senate Bill 1437 offers a kind of relief to those convicted for murder charges, the law has its limitations. You may be ineligible for this relief if the prosecution team prove you were the actual killer in the alleged crime. Your petition may be denied if the victim of the crime was a peace or police officer performing official duties. Acting recklessly to endanger human life and being a major participant in the murder crime can also make the court to deny your petition.
How a Motion to Have a Criminal Judgement Vacated Differs from the Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction
A motion to have a criminal judgment vacated allows you to ask a California court to overrule a previous judgment or order. The Governor of California approved Assembly Bill 2867 on 27th September 2018 to offer relief for criminal convictions. A criminal judgment can be withdrawn under this new law if there is proof of a prejudicial error. The prejudicial error must have damaged your ability to be prosecuted for it to be considered as a determining factor.
AB 2867 was introduced as an amendment of Penal Code 1473.7 of the California laws on criminal convictions. The new law does not give an exception for people with murder convictions to have their judgments withdrawn. In this case, a motion to have a criminal judgment vacated is different from the petition to have a murder conviction vacated.
Motions are usually in the form of an oral or written application submitted to a court to seek an order or ruling in a pending case. On the other hand, a petition is a written application used to initiate a proceeding. Instead of filing a motion to vacate a murder conviction, you will need to file a petition for this request. Your petition will serve as an application asking the authority to be exercised when relief or privilege is being granted.
Are Individuals Serving Life Imprisonment Without Parole Covered Under SB 1437?
When sentenced to life without parole, you will serve in state prison for life without any parole possibility. A judge may impose this sentence based on the sentencing enhancement statutes or the statute of a particular crime. The various crimes punishable with life without parole include first-degree murder, felony murder, and rape (for defendants with prior rape convictions).
You will have three viable options for challenging a life without parole sentence. They include petitioning the California governor to be granted a commutation, filing an appeal or bringing a “writ of habeas corpus” petition. A commutation is a form of pardon or clemency for reducing a prison sentence while an appeal is an application asking a higher court to review proceedings of a lower court. An HCP (“writ of habeas corpus” petition) allows you to challenge the conditions of your imprisonment.
Ever since SB 1437 was enacted, prisoners facing life without parole sentences managed to have their cases resentenced or convictions vacated. One of the provisions under Section 4 of SB 1437 allows “reckless endangerment to human life” to be used in vacating murder convictions. The law makes it possible for those facing murder convictions to have their convictions vacated if they did not intend to endanger human life. The burden of proof on the prosecutor’s side is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not entitled to this relief.
What is the Burden of Proof When Having a Murder Conviction Vacated?
In criminal law, the burden of proof refers to the obligation a party (participating in a trial) has to prove claims against the other party. One party must bear the burden of truth while the other gets the benefit of the doubt. In a case to have a murder conviction vacated, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor’s side. A court will expect the prosecution team to bring a claim in dispute of the petition to vacate your murder conviction.
The legal standards surrounding the burden of proof may include reasonable indications, reasonable suspicion, beyond reasonable doubt and probable cause. Most of these legal standards are required before a defendant is convicted of a murder crime. In a petition to vacate a murder conviction, the prosecutors’ burden of proof is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your conviction should not be vacated.
“Beyond reasonable doubt” is the highest burden of proof standard used in criminal proceedings to consider aggravating circumstances. This standard mandates the prosecution team to use evidence derived from facts that do not state you committed a particular crime. The evidence should also show there is no that you committed the crime.
How Criminal Liability Can Prevent You From Seeking an SB 1437 Relief
Criminal liability is among the crucial elements of a murder crime prosecutors need to prove in court before or after your conviction. When petitioning to vacate a murder conviction, the prosecution team may try to introduce new evidence proving this factor. Under California’s old law on felony murder, a defendant is guilty of murder if he or she kills the alleged victim. The defendant will also be found guilty if he or she intended to commit the crime or had a malice afterthought.
Before the felony murder law was amended, an individual would face a murder conviction even if the killing was accidental. The conviction would still take effect if the person did not intend to kill the alleged victim or was aware of the homicide. Prosecutors only relied on the fact that someone else was killed and the defendant aided in the commission or committed the felony.
The new California law on felony murder, as highlighted in SB 1437, requires the prosecutors to prove a greater aspect of the defendant’s intent to kill. You can only be found guilty of felony murder under SB 1437 if you committed, attempted or participated in a murder felony. If the prosecutors prove these allegations, your petition to have your murder conviction vacated may be denied.
Will Your Sixth Amendment Rights be Applicable When Having a Murder Conviction Vacated?
Since you will be regarded as a criminal defendant when petitioning to have your murder conviction vacated, you are entitled to your Sixth Amendment rights. The 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees you the right to a lawyer and right to a fair public trial without any unnecessary delay. You also have the right to know the nature of the criminal charges and pieces of evidence the prosecution team has against you.
Your right to a speedy trial, in the context of vacating a murder conviction, allows you to take legal action against the various parties if there are unnecessary delays in your case. Just like other criminal proceedings, you will need adequate legal representation as part of your right to a lawyer. A public trial, under the Sixth Amendment, refers to a trial with ordinary citizens, the press and your family members and friends present.
How Petitioning to Vacate a Murder Conviction Compares to Other Legal Remedies for a Murder Conviction
Petitioning to have your murder conviction vacated is undeniably the most recent legal remedy for murder convictions in California. Legal options defendants convicted of murder can use include applying for a governor's pardon, petitioning for reduced sentencing or appealing the conviction. Discussed below are ways in which they compare to petitioning a murder judgment:
Applying for a California Governor’s Pardon
In California, a Governor's pardon is a type of honor granted by the Governor to those who have undergone rehabilitation for a crime. The pardon helps relieve most of the penalties they faced when subjected to a criminal conviction. You have seven to ten years to apply for this honor when convicted for murder or any other criminal charge. The application timeline starts after completing parole or probation.
Once a court accepts to vacate your murder conviction, the conviction will not count as a prior if you are convicted of a similar offense. When the Governor pardons your conviction, the conviction will still be on your criminal history and count as a prior when facing a subsequent offense. You may be granted the pardon if you have spent more than 10 years after completing your parole or probation. You are also not supposed to commit any serious crime in the 10-year period for you to receive this honor.
One way of getting a Governor’s pardon include filing an application with the office of the Governor. You can also get the honor by filing a COR (Certificate of Rehabilitation) certificate with a superior court or receiving a pardon recommendation from the Board of Parole Hearings. Submitting a direct application for the pardon is the best of these three approaches.
Petitioning to Have Your Sentence Reduced
Besides allowing for murder convictions to be vacated, SB 1437 allows for a sentence reduction. You will be required to file a petition with your prosecuting agency or sentencing court for the sentence reduction. The petition must include your declaration showing your eligibility to have a sentence reduced. The eligibility requirements for resentencing are the same as those for vacating a murder conviction.
Once you prove your eligibility, a resentencing hearing will be held. The prosecutor's job, in this hearing, is to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that your sentence does not deserve a reduction. Any enhancements or allegations attached to your conviction will be vacated if the prosecutor fails to make this proof. The judge will also resentence you on the remaining criminal charges.
Appealing a Murder Conviction
Since a murder conviction is usually administered in a significantly lower court, an appeal allows you to ask a higher court to review this conviction. The California appeal process does not involve accepting new evidence, retrying the murder case or hearing testimony from various witnesses. The California Court of Appeal handles felony appeals while the appellate court handles misdemeanor appeals.
As the party filing the appeal, you will be referred to as the appellant while the party opposing you will be known as the respondent. In the appeal process, the higher court will examine the proceedings together with the judicial rulings of a smaller court for legal errors. You only have thirty to sixty days to submit the Notice of Appeal following your conviction in a trial court. The appeal process is more complicated and lengthy than that of petitioning for a murder conviction to be vacated.
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