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A majority of the state Supreme Court seemed to agree Tuesday that accomplices to felonies can face first-degree murder charges, even if they leave the crime scene before the victim died.

Justice Marvin Baxter set the pace during oral arguments, suggesting that criminals face an “inherent risk” of being involved in felony murder if they participate in burglaries or robberies. In the case before the court, he added, that risk was even higher because it was obvious to those involved in the crime that the relationship between the slain woman and one of her attackers — her stepdaughter — was fueled by hatred.

The case involves James Cavitt and Robert Williams, who were found guilty by separate juries for the 1995 murder of 58-year-old Betty McKnight, who suffocated while bound and gagged during a home invasion in Brisbane. Her stepdaughter, Mianta McKnight, concocted the robbery and was accused by her co-defendants of smothering Betty McKnight after they left the residence.

Cavitt and Williams were sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for first-degree felony murder. Mianta McKnight, who accepted a plea deal, got 15-years-to-life for second-degree murder.

On appeal, Cavitt and Williams contended that felony murder only applies to accomplices if the killing occurs “in furtherance” of the underlying crime. The two, who were teens at the time, contend that Mianta McKnight staged the robbery and murdered her stepmother out of pure hatred after the pair left.

San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal disagreed in 2002, saying that accomplices must only be “jointly engaged” in the underlying crime for first-degree felony murder to apply.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court’s justices appeared to agree with the appeal court.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Bryant argued that any killing that occurs during an underlying felony constitutes felony murder and contended that the fact that Cavitt and Williams weren’t around when McKnight expired makes no difference.

“We believe,” Bryant said, “all perpetrators are liable until all perpetrators have reached a place of safety” and are no longer part of the continuing felonious activity.

Baxter tested Bryant by asking whether Cavitt and Williams would be guilty of felony murder if Mianta McKnight had “spotted a longtime enemy outside a window” and shot her dead while they were absent.

Bryant said no because that wasn’t part of the original underlying crime.

“So,” Baxter asked, “there has to be some nexus between the felony and the killing of this third person?”

Bryant responded in the affirmative.

San Francisco lawyer Neil Rosenbaum, who represented Cavitt, and Menlo Park attorney Paul Carroll, arguing for Williams, offered spirited defenses, but seemed to make little headway.

Justice Ming Chin asked Rosenbaum whether the fact that McKnight was the target of the robbery wouldn’t provide enough of a connection to warrant felony murder. And Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wanted Carroll to explain why the way Cavitt and Williams bound and gagged McKnight — so that she had difficulty breathing — wasn’t enough for them to foresee the possibility of her death.

“Betty McKnight,” she said, “didn’t have a chance to defend herself.”

Carroll argued that there is a difference between a murder that results from a felony and one that happens “in furtherance of the felonious design.”

Only Justice Joyce Kennard appeared sympathetic to the defense. She challenged Deputy AG Bryant on his claims that felony murder applied to the accomplices as long as there was one continuous felonious action, and that there need not be any causal relationship between the murder and the underlying crime.

“Isn’t that going too far?” Kennard asked. “Shouldn’t the court require some logical nexus?”

Bryant said no, that there only had to be a continuous crime, robbery in this case, in which a murder was the result.

In one last plea, Cavitt’s lawyer, Rosenbaum, argued that if the court rules against him and Carroll — deciding that first-degree murder doesn’t require a killing “in furtherance” of a related felony — it would be running counter “to everything this court has said for 125 years.”

The case is People v. Cavitt & Williams, S105058. A decision should be released within 90 days.

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