Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Charged With Murder Without Killing Anyone

I notice they never use these laws against executives of companies whose knowing negligence causes the deaths of others, like Boeing.

By Christie Thompson

In 2012, four teenagers and their 21-year-old friend decided to burgle a house in their hometown of Elkhart County, Ind. No one in the group had any weapons, and they picked a house they thought was unoccupied. The homeowner was actually asleep upstairs — and armed. When the five kicked down the back door, Rodney Scott came downstairs and fired his gun, killing 21-year-old Danzele Johnson and hitting another in the leg.

The surviving members of the group, who came to be known as the “Elkhart Four,” were soon facing up to 55 years in prison for a murder they didn’t plan, intend, or commit. The sentences were the result of a complicated and controversial statute called “felony murder.” Most states have some version of a “felony murder” law in their criminal code. Such statutes allow for defendants to be convicted of murder — and in some cases face execution — if a death occurs because of a felony they commit, even if they were not the direct killer.

The Indiana Supreme Court overturned the murder convictions for three of the Elkhart Four last week, finding that “there was simply nothing about the appellant's’ conduct or the conduct of their cohorts that was clearly the mediate or immediate cause of their friend’s death.” (The fourth had plead guilty to the crime, and has filed his own petition.)


Because of the intricacies of plea deals, appeals, and criminal histories, people convicted of felony murder can receive harsher sentences than those directly responsible for the killing. In 1996, Steven Hatch wasput to death for felony murder. He and a friend, Glen Ake, invaded a home in Oklahoma, raped the daughter, and tormented the family. Later, Hatch waited in the car as Ake shot the family and killed the parents. Ake appealed his capital sentence on the grounds that he received inadequate support for his initial insanity plea. His sentence was downgraded to life with the possibility of parole.


Felony murder laws are especially controversial when it comes to children, because, lawyers and advocates claim, they can be easily manipulated into playing a role in an older offender’s crime. A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that 26 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole had been convicted of “felony murder.”


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