California Supreme Court Reduces Accessory Liability for “Natural and Probable” Consequence Murder to 2nd Degree

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In the case of People v. Chiu, decided on June 2, 2014, the California Supreme Court held that people convicted of murder as accessories in a “natural and probable” consequences murder could only be convicted of murder in the second degree.  Prior to Chiu, a person who was not involved in the actual killing could be convicted of first degree murder for their participation in a “target crime” (not the actual murder) if somebody ended up getting killed.  That is no longer the case.

The natural and probable consequences doctrine is based on the principle that liability extends to reach “the actual, rather than the planned or “intended” crime, committed on the policy [that] . . . aiders and abettors should be responsible for the criminal harms they have naturally, probably, and foreseeably put in motion.”

Unlike second degree murder, murder in the first degree requires that the perpetrator act with “malice aforethought,” which is inconsistent with”natural and probable” aider and abettor culpability.

First degree murder, like second degree murder, is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, but has the additional elements of willfulness, premeditation, and deliberation which trigger a heightened penalty.  That mental state is uniquely subjective and personal. It requires more than a showing of intent to kill; the killer must act deliberately, carefully weighing the considerations for and against a choice to kill before he or she completes the acts that caused the death.

Prosecutors have used the natural and probable consequences theory in conjunction with aider and abettor liability to convict scores of gang members of first degree murder.  Those convicted will now have to be re-sentenced in accord with the Chiu decision– second degree.

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