Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Felony Murder and Causation

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.

'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.
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?

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.


rook2pawn said...

hey, found out about the story from reddit.com (http://reddit.com/info/623qb/comments/)

Okay, this is a serious tragedy. That boy is sitting in a cell as I type this. The reddit.com community is a pretty lazy bunch, but what can we do to free this guy? the reddit community did do one or two things (http://reddit.com/info/61wkp/comments/)
and we are a sizable population (a good chunk of digg).

I wrote a successful federal appeal motion to modify terms of probation for a man convicted of bank robbery... What can we do!! I am not a follower of any religion, but I would find the notion of freeing Ryan Holle to be a holy quest.

imstupid said...

This kid loaned a car to his friend for the purpose of using it in a robbery of a drug dealer, where the kid knew that someone may be home. It is reasonable to think that a gun may be used, and a death would result, in a robbery of a drug dealer! I don't know about the Felony murder rules, but this seems like a solid Aiding and abetting case. The kid assisted in the robbery by loaning his car, and the robbery ending in a murder was certainly foreseeable given the circumstances.

spiderfish said...

imstupid: yes it's robbery assisting but that's it.

None of the guys should be convicted of murder besides the guy who actually committed it. The circumstances are redundant.

It's absolutely ridiculous and fortunately I live in a country where such laws have no basis to stand.

Donutbuzz said...

Well said, JDB. Well said.

Gerrit said...

I think the proximate cause is pretty satisfied in this case. A previous poster pointed out that murders typically occur when cars are use in robberies. If they had committed some very unforeseeable crime, I could understand getting riled up about this.

For an analogy, if Ryan had lent the robbers the gun they used, clearly it would be reasonable to charge him with felony murder.

There's a line somewhere (i.e. lending the robbers $10 for no particular reason, which they used to buy gas, which they used to get to the robbery/murder scene). But I don't think that Ryan is on the innocent side of that line yet.

Or for more thoughts, what if Ryan had not only lent the car, but driven it? I think more people would consider Ryan culpable, though his involvement is substantively the same.

It's not unreasonable to ask citizens not to help others commit crimes, and when they do, to hold them to the full consequences of the crimes committed as a deterrent.

tony_vipros said...

does that mean that if you sell a gun to a person and that person murders somebody with it, you are responsible for their murder?

Buzzardbilly said...

Excellent post. Awful reality.

Stephen said...

And if they had taken a bus?

grandcaymanmecrazy said...

Doesn't this law stem from the Lindbergh baby case - where they decided that the baby's death should be categorized as homicide since it happened (even if accidental) during the commission of another felony?

If that's the standard, this should certainly apply to the actual perpetrators, but I fail to see how it applies to Mr. Snyder. When did loaning a car become a felony?

It's possble I'm wrong about the legal context.

Anonymous said...

How is the felony murder rule "unfair"? If two people are acting in concert to commit a serious felony end up killing somebody during the course of the crime, why should only the guy who pulls the trigger be found guilty of murder? They both knew that bad things happen when you rob someone...they or a bystander could be killed by a bullet fired by the victim in self-defense, for example. Sure, the guy arguably didn't intend to kill someone...but he certainly intended to rob someone. That intent transfers to the murder. Just like if I intend to batter someone with my fist, if I swing and miss, I still have scared him, which is an assault. Get it?

yourRiotShield said...

I'm pretty liberal on most things but if this guy loaned his friend a car 'with some idea' that it would be used in the commission of a robbery, he gets what he gets.

JDB said...

grandcaymanmecrazy - the felony murder rule goes back well beyond the Lindberg case. It is part of what my Torts professor called the "olde common law" that existed in England for centuries. In fact, the UK has done away with the rule via an act of Parliament.

Anon - the unfairness comes not from the liability but from the scope of punishment, in my book. Once the FM rule is triggered, it's 1st degree murder, no questions asked. That kind of hard bright line trigger robs courts of the ability to asses relative culpability.

As for the battery/assault analogy, if assault carries a lesser punishment (which varies from state to state) it doesn't hold up because you'll be punished less for failing in your attempted battery. Holle isn't being punished as if he was one of many people involved in that girl's death, but as if he stood there and bashed her head in himself, which he didn't.

Ryan's Mom said...

I'm Ryans mom, please contact me at sylgdestin@cox.net

Andy Sharp said...

Living in the UK where we abandoned Felony Murder doctrine, I find it astonishing that Ryan could be tried and convicted in this way.

Given the proximity of the drug dealer's house, it's perfectly reasonable to say that the culprits of the crime could have easily travelled to the house without Ryan's car, thus negating the arguments of the victim's father.

But more importantly, even if Ryan had some foreknowledge of the intent of his friends, he did not actively participate in the crime. His only crime in my eyes is that he didn't inform the police of the act his friends were preparing to commit. This should be his crime and a suitable punishment would be applicable. I cannot see how life without possibility of parole is justifiable.

I fully agree with the previous comments about restricting courts powers of determining sentence. It reminds me of the three strikes rule where a man is automatically given a life sentence even if the crime is the mere theft of a toilet roll. Sentencing must be proportionate to the crime committed. It's been shown that the deterrent effect of sentencing is minimal and these sorts of schemes or doctrines are ineffective. See the following link : http://www.justice.org.uk/images/pdfs/10sente.PDF

Nathan101085 said...

There is clearly an issue here beyond... The kid gave his friends his car in order to rob a place = The kid committed the murder at the scene.

According to a 2007 interview with the New York Times Holle had no criminal record. He had lent his car to those same friends countless times before.

Holle stated that "I honestly thought they were going to get food" and that "When they actually mentioned what was going on, I thought it was a joke."[1] He explained that he was naive, and had been drinking all night, so he "didn't understand what was going on."[1]

These things aside, he did not in any sense "plan" this murder. He was told about a robbery, shaky as it is that he "knew" a robbery would be committed he should be charged on account of that robbery. He should be charged for the situation only as long as it was within his control. Currently it appears this young man may have had better luck actually going and assisting in the robbery itself, which of course given (and assuming) that he knew a robbery was going to take place at least then (if we are making statements about what would and would not happen “No car, no crime,” according to the prosecutor, David Rimmer) this would have given him a chance to stop the murder. Would he have? I think the state need only ask him. The lesser of two evils between lending a car to robbers and being one of the robbers seems to be the lending. Why? If they were equal they would be the same action, lending the car does not ensure a robbery actually takes place, committing the robbery does.

If Holle was told of a robbery then once the car left he has done a part in assisting a robbery, however he was not there to control the events of the robbery, he did not order this girls death, his friends did.

Back to the quotes, if indeed there is any confusion as to his knowledge of the use of his car, this is hands down ridiculous.