Why a convicted killer may go free

Two state Supreme Court decisions have invalidated scores of second-degree murder cases around the state, 21 of them in Snohomish County. These are what prosecutors call felony murder cases.

Here’s what a felony murder is:

* A defendant assaults someone and the victim dies.

* Until the two Supreme Court decisions, prosecutors frequently filed second-degree murder charges even though the defendant didn’t intend to kill.

* In October 2002, the court said that’s wrong. At least under the old law, murder can’t be charged with assault being the underlying crime.

* In November, the high court made the decision retroactive to hundreds of other felony murder cases, setting the stage for convicted murders seeking release from prison.

n The Legislature changed the law and reaffirmed its intent to allow prosecutors to file murder cases when a death results from an assault, but that law hasn’t been upheld by the courts so its validity is uncertain.

* Defense attorneys have insisted for years that manslaughter, which carries a lesser penalty, is a more appropriate criminal charge.

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