I've blogged before about the felony murder doctrine, which holds that a person is liable for murder (usually first degree) if someone else dies while he commits some other violent felony. Today's New York Times discusses the felony murder rule and its application to accomplices who aren't involved in the underlying offense and asks whether the United States should join the rest of the common law world and just do away with the felony murder rule altogether.
The "killer" in question in the article is Ryan Holle, a 25-year old Florida man doing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. His crime? He loaned a friend his car - as he'd done numerous times before - with some idea that the friend and some other guys were going to go rob a drug dealer. The friend admitted that someone might be home when the broke in, but nobody intended to kill anybody. As it happened, the daughter of the drug dealer got caught up in the break in and was killed. All of the other guys got life in prison, too (the state unsuccessfully sought the death penalty against the actual killer.
The state's theory as to why Holle should bear the full brunt of a murder conviction was numbingly simple - without the car, there would have been no murder. Aside from the obvious falsity of that theory (the robbers wouldn't find another car? they wouldn't walk the 1.5 miles to the house? bullshit!), it points to an obvious disparity in this case:
Terry Snyder, whose daughter Jessica was the victim in Mr. Holle’s case, said Mr. Holle’s conduct was as blameworthy as that of the man who shattered her skull.So, let's get this straight - providing the car but otherwise having no other connection to the offense merits life, but providing the object of the robbery only merits three years?
'It never would have happened unless Ryan Holle had lent the car,' Mr. Snyder said. 'It was as good as if he was there.'* * *
Witnesses described the horror of the crime. Christine Snyder, for instance, recalled finding her daughter, her head bashed in and her teeth knocked out.
'Then what did you do?' the prosecutor asked her.
I went screaming out of the home saying they blew my baby’s face off,' Ms. Snyder said.
The safe had belonged to Christine Snyder. The police found a pound of marijuana in it, and, after her daughter’s funeral, she was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing it.
That highlights the inherent problem with the felony murder rule, in my opinion. It is divorced from the traditional fault-based scheme of homicides that provide different levels of punishment depending on the killer's state of mine. The felony murder rule treats all defendants as supremely culpable when that is rarely (if ever) the case.
Is Rolle responsible in some fashion for that girl's death? Yes, but no more so than his pot-stashing mother and certainly less so than the guy who actually snuffed out her life. One size fits all justice is never a good thing, particularly when it results in locking somebody up and throwing away the key.