Thursday, December 14, 2023

Felony-murder: 'A distinctly American innovation'

What makes a murderer? Intent is often assumed to be a factor. But, for hundreds of years, the felony-murder doctrine has muddled this conceit, writes Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker.

In 1716, the legal theorist William Hawkins argued that a crime like robbery “necessarily tends to raise Tumults and Quarrels . . . and cannot but be attended with the Danger of personal Hurt.” Any resulting death, he posited, was tantamount to murder. Such notions began being applied in British courts later in the eighteenth century, and, almost from the beginning, Britons were questioning whether the felony-murder doctrine was just.

The question came to a head in 1953, when, despite widespread pleas for clemency, a nineteen-year-old Londoner named Derek Bentley was executed because his sixteen-year-old accomplice in a burglary killed a policeman during the crime. Four years later, the U.K. abolished the doctrine, and other Commonwealth nations followed suit. The United States, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction.

According to Guyora Binder, of the University at Buffalo School of Law, the modern felony-murder doctrine is best understood as “a distinctly American innovation.” Although it was first applied early in the nineteenth century, use of the charge surged in the nineteen-seventies, when the era of mass incarceration began. Fifty years later, Binder contends, no country relies on the doctrine more.

In Tulsa, two men attempted to steal some copper wire from a radio tower and accidentally electrocuted themselves. One of them died and the other was charged with first-degree murder while recovering from his burns in the hospital; the girlfriend of the deceased was also charged with murder, for having driven them to the tower. In Topeka, a twenty-two-year-old made the mistake of hiding his gun atop his girlfriend’s refrigerator; he was charged with first-degree murder several days later, when a child inadvertently fired it at a thirteen-year-old girl. In Minneapolis, a sixteen-year-old girl who sat in the car while two older men killed someone in a robbery was charged with felony murder. Deemed too young to enter the adult prison population after her conviction, she was placed in solitary confinement for months, purportedly for her own safety. In Somerville, Tennessee, last May, three teen-age girls overdosed on fentanyl in their high school’s parking lot before a graduation ceremony. Two of them died, and the surviving girl was charged with murder.

For prosecutors, the felony-murder rule offers an efficient path to conviction: winning a case is much easier if you don’t need to prove a person’s mens rea—“guilty mind”—or even, in some cases, to establish that the accused was at the scene of the crime. Forty-eight states now have some version of the statute. Charlie Smith, the president of the National District Attorneys Association, told me that the tool is particularly useful in cases with vulnerable victims, such as an elderly woman in a wheelchair who gets assaulted in a purse-snatching incident and dies. “The community would feel it’s not reasonable if the old lady’s death was just a simple misdemeanor assault,” he said. Prosecutors often employ felony murder when a death results from an armed robbery—a category of crime that Smith contends, in the spirit of Hawkins, carries death as a foreseeable outcome.

Another benefit to prosecutors is that the steep penalties often attached to felony murder—including life sentences—compel defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge. “We shouldn’t underestimate how many plea bargains occur in the shadow of felony-murder charges across the country,” Ekow Yankah, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told me. “It is one of those quiet drivers of mass incarceration we never acknowledge.”

Remarkably, no one knows how many people in the United States have been imprisoned for the crime. So in 2022, working with students and colleagues at the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab, I decided to try to get a sense of the scale. We started by filing public-records requests to state corrections departments and other agencies across the country; to our surprise, most told us that they weren’t keeping track. “The records do not exist,” an official at the Virginia Department of Corrections wrote, in a typical response. In most states, a felony-murder conviction gets lumped in with other types of murder, clouding the data. It was as if the extent of felony murder in America were hidden by design.

 When we eventually secured robust data from eleven states, our lab’s analysts discovered that racial disparities for felony-murder convictions were higher—sometimes far higher—than the already disproportionate rates of Black incarceration over all. In Wisconsin, where Black individuals account for less than seven per cent of the population, the data show that they make up seventy-six per cent of those incarcerated for felony murder. In St. Louis, every felony-murder conviction between 2010 and 2022—a total of forty-seven people, according to the State of Missouri—was of a Black person.

To identify cases in other states, we worked with analysts at the nonprofit organization Measures for Justice, and with several law-school clinics, to obtain previously unpublished data. Thus far, we’ve documented more than ten thousand felony-murder convictions nationwide. We’ve also scoured trial records, appeals, and news clips, finding and scrutinizing more than two hundred cases, like Baxter’s, in which the defendant neither killed nor intended to kill the victim. Women were sometimes charged for driving getaway cars for abusive partners, or performing other tasks under duress; some of the women served longer jail terms than their partners who’d committed the killing. And, time and again, young people were prosecuted for what an acquaintance, to their shock, had decided to do. In the past two years, I travelled from Alabama to California to Michigan to meet some of the individuals who have served time on the charge—along with crime victims’ families, prosecutors, public defenders, and others—to consider how a doctrine so widely critiqued, and rejected elsewhere in the world, has proved stubbornly resilient in the United States.

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