Thursday, December 6, 2007

Felony Murder & Youth Crime

A student reminded me yesterday about this Times story from Tuesday on felony murder and the controversial nature of such statutes. Below is just one example of how the felony murder statute worked against this offender, now doing LWOP in a Florida prison. (emphasis mine)

"CRAWFORDVILLE, Fla. — Early in the morning of March 10, 2003, after a raucous party that lasted into the small hours, a groggy and hungover 20-year-old named Ryan Holle lent his Chevrolet Metro to a friend. That decision, prosecutors later said, was tantamount to murder.

"The friend used the car to drive three men to the Pensacola home of a marijuana dealer, aiming to steal a safe. The burglary turned violent, and one of the men killed the dealer’s 18-year-old daughter by beating her head in with a shotgun he found in the home.

"Mr. Holle was a mile and a half away, but that did not matter.

"He was convicted of murder under a distinctively American legal doctrine that makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer for murders committed during felonies like burglaries, rapes and robberies."

"Mr. Holle, who had given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary, was convicted of first-degree murder. He is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole at the Wakulla Correctional Institution[...]"

The article goes on to note that felony murder statutes hail from old English common law precepts, even though England itself abolished felony murder statutes in 1957.

What the article doesn't mention is that felony murder statutes in particular tend to be used against juveniles and young adults disproportionately, since the nature of youth crime is group-oriented.

In other words, since juveniles commit most crimes in groups (as in the case of homicide as well), more juveniles can be prosecuted using felony murder, including a guy who lent the killers his car.

"A prosecutor explained the theory to the jury at Mr. Holle’s trial in Pensacola in 2004. “No car, no crime,” said the prosecutor, David Rimmer. “No car, no consequences. No car, no murder.”

Of course, that's a bit silly. You could also lock up executives at Chevrolet and the workers who assembled the car too, using that logic. "No GM, no Detroit, no workers, no car, no murder," etc.

The documentary we watched in Delinquency, "When Kids Get Life", regarding so-called "Adult Crime/Adult Time" laws made a similar point regarding how felony murder is used against juveniles disproportionally.

Approximately 16% of all homicides occur during the commission of a felony, yet "nationwide, it is estimated that a quarter of the young offenders sentenced to life without parole have been convicted of felony murder. It is a law that affects more juveniles than adults, since juveniles tend to act in groups, and felony murder assigns the same culpability to everyone involved in the underlying felony, even if a murder is committed by only one of the group."

In the case of felony murder, I would doubt the statute is in any danger of being eradicated in the U.S., given its historical significance and seeming constitutionality. But a serious re-thinking of its application to juvenile offenders seems to be in order.

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