In California, felony murder is defined in both first and second degree murder statutes (Cal. Penal Code § 189(a), People v. Powell, 5 Cal. 5th 921, 942 (2018)).

Prosecutors can charge and convict any person of first and second degree murder without having to prove that they intended to cause another person’s death, but do have to prove that a person exhibited a “reckless indifference to human life.” Prosecutors must only prove that a person or their accomplice intended to commit or attempted to commit another specified felony and that a death occurred. Pursuant to legislative changes in 2018, however, in order to convict someone of felony murder, prosecutors must prove that they were a “major participant” in the underlying felony. This legislative change does not apply in cases involving the death of a peace officer.

Analysis: Race

Race and Conviction Rate

In California, you are 25.8455 times more likely to be incarcerated for felony murder if you are Black than if you are white.

Black 25.8455x

Disproportionate Representation

While Black individuals account for only 6.5% of California’s population


they make up 30% of all incarcerated people


and 42.7% of those incarcerated for felony murder.


Analysis: Impact on Youth

  • 9.34%

    Percentage of those incarcerated for
felony murder younger than 18 at the time of offense.

  • 18

    The most common age at offense for individuals convicted through felony murder.

Data Request Process

Data Request Process Grade 2.8 / 5 (C)
Factors Supporting Grade
Request Responsiveness
Financial Accessibility
No Residency Required
Appeal Responsiveness

*These factors track the process--i.e. the effort and obstacles--for obtaining data from individual states under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and appeals process. These factors do not measure the quality of the data; only the process of attempting to obtain the data.

How We Collected Our Data

We reached these findings by building on a July 2023 report published by the Special Circumstances Conviction Project (SCCP) -- in collaboration with the Felony Murder Elimination Project and the UCLA Center for the Study of Women -- titled “Life Without Parole and Felony Murder Sentencing in California.” According to the SCCP, they obtained their data through “Public Records Act (PRA) requests to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and county district attorney offices; California Rules of Court 10.500 administrative record requests to Superior Courts; and searches of legal databases and news publications.” Our analysis of the racial disparities within this data covers those charged with felony murder from 1978 to 2021.


Citation: Special Circumstances Conviction Project. “Life Without Parole and Felony Murder Sentencing in California.” Written by Daniel Trautfield. UCLA Center for the Study of Women|Streisand Center, 2023.

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This analysis covers those charged with felony murder from 1978 to 2021.