The Colorado state Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would reduce the penalty for felony murder, a statute under Colorado state law that allows a person to be convicted of murder and automatically sentenced to life in prison without having killed anyone or been aware of the murder.

The proposed law, which would change felony murder from a class one to a class two felony, won bipartisan approval in the Senate yesterday on a 22-13 vote. 

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert (R-Douglas County), Sen. Kevin Priola (R-Henderson), and state Sen. John Cooke (R-Greeley), who is a former Weld County Sheriff, sided with Democrats in voting in favor of the bill.

The existing law says that a person can be charged with felony murder, and automatically sentenced to life in prison, if someone dies during the commission of one of six specified felony crimes, even if the accused did not kill the victim themself or intend for someone to die during the crime. 

A person may not even know that a killing occurred and still be charged with felony murder, so long as they are convicted of felony arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, escape, or sexual assault and someone died during the crime.

Lisl Auman, for example, was sitting in the back of a locked police car when her partner in a burglary fatally shot a Denver police officer. She was charged with felony murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1998. 

Auman was released eight years later in 2006, when the felony murder charges were dropped by the Colorado Supreme Court.

According to data compiled by legislative research staff, between July 2017 and June 2020, 42 people were convicted of felony murder in Colorado.

State Sen. Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs), a sponsor of the bill, says felony murder provisions are inconsistent with the American system of justice. 

“We believe people should be sentenced and punished based on what they did,” he said.

If the legislation, SB21-124, is signed into law, only those who participated in a killing could be charged with felony murder.

Felony murder would also be treated as a class two felony under the proposed changes, meaning automatic sentencing for life without parole would no longer be applicable. The charge would instead carry a 48-year maximum sentence.

18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner voiced his support for the felony murder law as it currently stands, calling Lee’s bill dangerous.

He says people who knowingly participate in dangerous crimes should be punished, regardless of if they committed the crime or even knew that a murder occurred. 

“It criminalizes people that commit the most dangerous, inherently likely to result in death-kind-of-felonies,” Kellner said recently on Jimmy Sengenberger’s show. “And punishes them, frankly, in the harshest way that we can under the law.”

Kellner’s predecessor George Brauchler also supports the current felony murder law, once calling it a powerful tool that he “use(s) a lot.”

Kellner’s stance on criminal justice reform appears to mirror Brauchler’s.

“My predecessor had often talked about how the legislature was pro-offender,” Kellner said in regards to the proposed changes to the felony murder law. “I’m certainly seeing that as my first year here as district attorney.”