A murder sentence comes with severe penalties. For instance, you could face life imprisonment and sometimes even the death sentence based on the specific facts of the case. However, under certain circumstances, you don’t have to face these penalties. Under California law, it is now possible to have your murder sentence removed from your criminal record. This is made possible by filing a petition.
At Leah Legal law firm, we can assist you or a loved one convicted of PC 187 murder through this process. Our attorneys are familiar with California law and all the changes it undergoes. They also have profound experience helping Los Angeles residents with legal matters. Thus, you can be confident they will accord you the assistance you need. The following sections explain the law on a petition to vacate a murder sentence.
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What Vacating a Murder Sentence/Conviction Means
The word ‘vacate,’ as used in law means overrule or declare something null & void. Court judgments can be vacated due to mistakes that are so significant that they can affect the outcome. Your conviction can be vacated only if a court decides that you are eligible for the vacation. For you to be eligible, you have to meet various requirements of the law as we shall discuss later. After, the court vacates your conviction; the sentence will be deleted from your criminal record.
To kick off the process to vacate your murder conviction, your attorney has to present a motion before the court. Other parties to participate in your petition are the prosecuting attorney who works under the DA's office and his/her team. Every U.S state has its independent laws that address the vacation of criminal judgments. The petition your attorney will file has to follow States’ laws on murder for you to stand a chance of having the conviction vacated.
California Laws that Permit You to File a Petition to Vacate Your Murder Conviction
Under the pre-existing California murder law, first-degree murder is a murder offense committed in the commission or attempt to perpetrate different felonies. These felonies include arson, sex crimes, robbery, carjacking, train wrecking, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, and torture. First -degree murder penalties under the current murder law include life in California State prison (with no parole) or twenty-five years to imprisonment for life California state prison. On the other hand, the penalties for a second-degree murder include fifteen years to imprisonment for life.
However, recently, a new murder law was passed. The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed into a new law Senate Bill (SB) 1437 on the 30th of September 2018. This law enables offenders who have reason to believe their conviction was biased to file a petition in court seeking for their sentences to be overruled. Thus, the new law changed the murder law that pre-existed. This is so because, now, individuals that can be charged with murder are limited only to three categories:
- Those showed the intent to commit murder
- Those that committed actual murder
- Offenders that aided and abetted the killing
Before SB 1437 was enacted, California laws on murder didn’t have any exceptions for offenders. Offenders sentenced for murder were not allowed to present a petition in court contesting the verdict. But, with the introduction of this law, unfairly convicted offenders can seek justice. The good feature about this law is; it’s retroactive. This means individuals that were sentenced or alleged to have committed a murder offense by the previous law can petition their sentence. If the petition is successful, a person’s murder charges will be reduced or dropped entirely.
The main reason SB 1437 was enacted is to ensure all California criminal convictions are handled justly. In the long run, the law will help to lower overcrowding in state prisons. Congestion will be reduced because long sentences that aren’t equated to the offenders’ liability as actual murderers are the leading cause of overcrowding in prisons.
The Process of Filing Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction
The rules to follow when submitting a petition to vacate a murder conviction are highlighted under PC 1170.95. Even though the law doesn’t provide the statute of limitations for presenting the petition, you’ve to meet certain eligibility requirements. The requirements are as listed below:
- The charges against you allow the prosecuting attorney to argue the case under a ‘felony murder’ or ‘natural & probable consequences’ theory.
- You were convicted of first or second-degree murder after entering a plea bargain instead of a trial or after a trial.
- You can’t face a first/second-degree murder conviction as a result of the changes that SB 1437 brought to the law.
A petition to have a murder conviction vacated is brought in a similar court where your sentence took place. After filing the petition, your lawyer has to serve petition copies to the D.A involved in your sentencing. In case the judge that delivered judgment isn’t present, the presiding judge appoints a different judge who provides a ruling on your case. Your petition should include:
- The year you were convicted
- Your case number
- Your declaration acknowledging you are entitled to a conviction vacation under SB1437 depending on the above requirements.
- Whether you request counsel appointment.
If the details are as required and the court confirms that you are eligible, your case proceeds to a trial. The District Attorney is allowed time to respond by filing a response. Your attorney will also be given time to submit a reply. Additionally, the court determines whether or not a hearing for your case should be conducted. Your attorney and the prosecution) refer to your record of conviction to either support or contest the case.
Your murder conviction can be vacated in the prosecution fails to show beyond any reasonable doubt that you are ineligible. Also, your sentencing may be resentenced to a shorter period or reduced altogether. Usually, people whose sentences are resentenced receive certain credits for all the term they served previously. Often, judges will have them serve parole for up to three months once they complete the sentence
However, if any necessary details are missing or the court cannot readily ascertain them, your application may be denied without prejudice. The court will then advise you that it can’t rule on your petition if there’s no necessary information. The good news is that in case your petition is denied on this basis; it won’t prevent you from re-petitioning when essential information is available.
Facts that Make an Offender Ineligible for a Murder Sentence Relief Under SB 1437
Even though SB 1437 provides little relief to offenders convicted of murder, it has its exceptions. You will be entitled to the relief in case the prosecution proves the following:
- You are the real killer of the victim
- You didn’t kill but aided and abetted the real killer with the intent to kill
- The murder victim was a law enforcement officer who was in his/her line of duty
- You were the main participant in the perpetration of the murder and acted with great disregard to human life
Petition Hearing Procedures and Formalities
As per PC 1170.95c, the prosecuting attorney should file a response to your petition and serve it to your attorney in sixty days of receiving the notice. Your attorney will then have thirty days after being served to reply to the case. The court could choose to prolong the time for replies and responses based on the good cause established by either party. If you prove before the judge that you are eligible for relief, the judge on your case issues a directive to have the petition proceed.
In sixty days of the issuance of the order, the court has to conduct a hearing that determines whether the conviction should be vacated or you should be resentenced. If you are being resentenced, the new sentence should be shorter than the previous or initial sentencing. However, the prosecuting attorney and your attorney can agree to waive the hearing then stipulate that you are qualified to vacate your conviction or for resentencing. This will also apply in case the court/jury findings indicate that you didn’t act recklessly in disregard for human life. It also applies if you were not the leading participant.
In case a hearing happens, the prosecuting team will bear the burden of proof. The team will have to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that you are not entitled to a resentencing or vacating your murder conviction. Failure to prove this would lead to the sentence being vacated or you would be resentenced based on any of the outstanding counts. The two parties may depend on the hearing as well as trial transcripts or produce additional or new proof.
The judge may rule that you are eligible for relief because your murder case was generically charged. If this happens, it will show that the main target crime wasn’t charged legally. Thus, the court has to restructure the conviction of your charges as the target or felony crime to resentence.
In case of a resentencing, the law compels the prosecutor to give you credit for the time you have served. After serving your sentence, you will be released permanently. However, as we mentioned earlier, the judge can order you to serve parole for not more than three years upon the completion of your sentence.
The Difference Between Petition to Vacate Murder Conviction and Motion to Vacate Criminal Judgment
A motion to vacate criminal judgment enables you to request the court to overturn a past order/judgment. On the 27th of September 2018, California Governor signed into law Assembly Bill (AB) 2867. The purpose of enacting this bill was to provide relief for criminal sentences. A court can withdraw a criminal verdict under AB 2867 if there’s adequate evidence of a significant error. The error should have damaged the capability of someone being fairly charged with an offense to qualify as a defining factor.
Assembly Bill 2867 was first introduced to amend PC 1473.7 law on California criminal convictions. Under the AB 2867 law, individuals convicted of murder cannot have their verdicts withdrawn. This is where the difference between a motion to vacate a criminal judgment and a petition to vacate a murder conviction lies.
A motion is usually a written/oral application presented before a judge to seek a verdict or order in an ongoing case. Contrarily, a petition refers to a written request that initiates a proceeding. Thus, instead of a motion seeking to vacate your murder conviction, you’ll have to present a petition. The petition serves as a request asking for authority to prevail when you’re being granted privilege or relief.
Other Legal Ways to Modify a Murder Sentence
In California, filing a petition seeking a murder sentence/conviction vacation is the latest lawful way to modify a murder sentence. Other legal options that existed before include appealing the sentence, petitioning for a reduced sentence, or seeking pardon from the Governor. Let us look at them in detail.
Filing a petition seeking a sentence reduction
Apart from having a murder conviction vacated, SB 1437 also enables one’s sentence to be reduced. For your sentence to be reduced, you have to petition to your sentencing court or prosecuting agency. The petition has to include a declaration showing that you are eligible for a sentence reduction. The requirements to qualify for a sentence reduction are similar to those for the vacation of a murder sentence.
After the court proves that you are eligible, a hearing will be conducted. The job of the prosecuting attorney is to show that you don’t deserve a sentence reduction. He/she has to prove this beyond any reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor fails to prove, the court will reduce your sentence.
Seeking a Governor’s Honor/Pardon
A Governor’s honor/pardon refers to a kind of honor a governor grants to people that have gone through rehabilitation for an offense. The pardon relieves most penalties these people faced when they were criminally convicted. The timeframe for applying for this pardon ranges between seven and ten years. This timeframe starts after you completed probation or parole. Any person convicted of a criminal offense, murder included, can apply for the pardon.
After a court vacates a murder sentence, that conviction won’t be counted as a previous offense in case a conviction of a similar offense occurs. However, when the Governor pardons a conviction, it still will reflect on a person’s criminal record. It will also be counted as a previous conviction if the person faces a subsequent conviction. A governor may agree to pardon your criminal conviction after you’ve spent over ten years since the completion of your probation or parole. Additionally, you should not have committed any serious crime within these years to stand a chance of being pardoned.
You can get a Governor’s honor by filing a request with the Governor’s office. Also, you can get the pardon through the filing of a Certificate of Rehabilitation (COR) in a court that is more superior. Or, you can be recommended by the Board of Parole Hearings for the honor. Applying directly to the Governor’s office is the most effective way of the three.
Appealing your murder sentence
Because judgment for a murder case is usually delivered in the court of a lower ranking, an appeal will allow you to request a court of a higher ranking to assess the verdict. The California process of appealing doesn’t include admitting new evidence into the case. It also doesn’t involve hearing witness testimonies or trying the case for a second time. Two different courts handle appeal cases in California. The appellate court presides over misdemeanor appeals while the Court of Appeal hears felony appeals.
A person who is appealing his/her case is called an appellant, whereas the opposing party is the respondent. The appeal procedure involves the high-ranking court examining the proceedings and judicial judgments of a lower-ranking court for any legal errors. After a conviction, you have up to 60 days of presenting Notice of Appeal. The process of appeal is lengthier and more complicated compared to seeking to have your murder sentence vacated.
A judge/court can recall your conviction within 120 days after sentencing you without filing a Motion for Resentencing. If a judge recalls a sentence, he/she has to issue a directive for your fresh sentencing. The new sentence shouldn't be longer than the initial or previous sentence. Before recalling your sentence, the judge reconsiders several factors. They include:
- Your rehabilitation records
- Your disciplinary record
- The risk you pose or the capability of committing criminal violence in future
- Your interest to seek justice
Find an Attorney Near Me to Help Me File a Petition to Vacate a Murder Conviction
Negotiating for vacating a murder conviction isn’t easy if you don’t have an expert attorney by your side. If you, a family member, friend or a person you love needs to petition the judgment on their cases, they should hire a competent lawyer. Leah Legal law firm has professional attorneys who are well-versed and experienced in petition matters. Call our Los Angeles criminal lawyer at 818-484-1100 to schedule a consultation with our attorneys. They will expound on the process of filing the petition as well as the best possible way to solve your case. We serve residents of Los Angeles County and Van Nuys, who need help in handling legal matters.