"The Cruel Irony of Life Without Parole"
By John Purugganan
Premeditated murder—a murder with malice aforethought, a planned, deliberate, expressed intention to kill a person—carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. To
receive a life without the possibility of parole sentence (LWOP), proof of intent or premeditation is not only unnecessary, it’s not even a consideration. To receive a life without parole sentence a
defendant doesn’t even have to kill anyone.
As absurd as it sounds, under the antiquated felony murder rule, a person can be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole even if the death was accidental, unforeseen, or otherwise unintended and, yes, even if the defendant did not kill
anyone. The felony-murder rule is a prosecutor’s favorite because criminal liability for a homicide is significantly broadened. The only proof required to secure a first-degree murder conviction is that the defendant is involved in the commission, attempted commission, or flight following the commission of a statutorily enumerated felony.
The People of the State of California vs Homer Brown is a prime example. Ask yourself if this crime is decidedly more heinous than a murder that was planned and executed in cold blood. In 1979, Homer Brown and his co-defendant entered the HFJ Liquor Store in Long Beach California with intention to commit robbery. As the two robbers attempted to escape with the stolen cash, the store owner opened fire with a revolver he kept in his waistband. Brown took two bullets in his buttocks. Brown’s co-defendant returned fire with a handgun, fatally wounding the story owner. Brown and his co-defendant were both convicted of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Today, there are 5,234 people serving LWOP in California prisons.
Nearly 80% of people serving LWOP are people of color-nearly 70 percent are Black or Latinx.
The number of people sentenced to LWOP in California has risen over the years, despite a steady decline in the violent crime rate.
145 people serving LWOP were sentenced when they were 18 years old or younger. Of those serving LWOP, 10% were sentenced before turning 21 years old, and 44% were sentenced when they were 25 years old or younger.
The majority of people serving an LWOP sentence are classified as low risk according to the California Static Risk Assessment.53. Indeed, 4,586 of the 5,234 or 88% of people serving LWOP have been assessed the lowest risk score on the scale.