Imagining going to prison for 45 years for murder, when even the judge and the prosecutor agree that you didn’t actually kill anyone.
That’s what happened in Indiana, where, according to a riveting and troubling investigation by the Indy Star, four teens have been given 45-plus-year sentences for felony murder stemming from an incident in which they broke into a house they thought was empty. The homeowner was actually asleep upstairs, and he ended up killing one of their friends.
Felony murder is the charge used when someone is killed while the defendant was committing or attempting an "inherently dangerous" crime. This includes crimes like burglary, arson, and assault, to name a few.
Only a few states have stricken the law, which originated in England, from their books, according to the Indy Star. England has also gotten rid of it, saying that people should only be held responsible for their own actions.
From the Star:
It was around 2 p.m. They attended an alternative school, which let out early, and they were hanging out at Quiroz's front porch. They discussed ways to get some quick cash to buy weed. Breaking into a home seemed like a good idea. So they began looking for an empty house.
Sparks knocked on the first home; dogs started barking. The second house wasn't empty either. But the third one, a two-story wooden home with red bricks and white door frame on Frances Avenue, appeared to be empty.
The man living there usually parked his truck in the driveway. That day, Sparks said, the truck wasn't there. They thought he was probably at work.
"… it was a clear sign to be able to just go in, do what we need to do," Sparks told The Indianapolis Star, "and nothing bad could come out of it."
They banged on the front door. No answer.
Sparks stayed across the street with a cell phone in case the police came. Quiroz, Layman, Sharp and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, went around the back of the house and kicked in the steel door.
Rodney Scott, who was napping upstairs, heard a loud boom and woke up. The whole house shook, he later told police. He heard a second boom and felt his house shake again. There had been a burglary in the neighborhood earlier that week. He grabbed his handgun and ran loudly downstairs, hoping to scare away the intruders.
One of the teens was shot and killed by the homeowner, who was cleared of any wrongdoing, and another was shot but survived. Then, all survivors were charged and convicted of felony murder for the death of their friend.
A Human Rights Watch report from 2009 (the most recent) found that an estimated 26 percent of offenders serving juvenile life in prison without parole were found guilty of felony murder, meaning they were not the person who killed the victim. The same study found that “empirical data about the number of felony murder convictions every year is not available.”
Another particularly troubling case came out of Florida in 2004. In that case, Ryan Holle lent his friends his car after a night of partying. Those friends took it to a drug dealer's house, and they broke in and tried to steal a safe. During the attempted robbery, a resident was killed.
Holle, who was undisputedly asleep in his bed at the time, was charged with felony murder, and given a sentence of life without parole—the same as those who actually did the killing.
“The laws that they use to convict people are just — they have to revise them,” Holle told the New York Times from prison in 2007. “Just because I lent these guys my car, why should I be convicted the same as these people that actually went to the scene of the crime and actually committed the crime?”
“The felony murder rule serves important interests,” David Rimmer, the prosecutor in the Holle case, told the Times, “because it holds all persons responsible for the actions of each other if they are all participating in the same crime.”
So will these laws be going anywhere anytime soon? Not likely, say some Indiana officials, who say repealing the law is unlikely to gain popular support.
"It's much safer to sponsor a bill that increases the penalty for a crime," Indiana Public Defender Council Executive Director Larry Landis told the Indy Star about the Indiana case. "No one has ever lost an election for supporting a law to enhance penalty on a criminal."
But the reason the law should be reversed, Landis said, is very simple: "If you don't intend the results of your criminal act, you should not be punished as though you did intend to do it."
In the meanwhile, the four defendants, two of whom are now 20 years old, are sitting in state prison crossing their fingers, hoping that the Indiana Supreme Court reverses their sentences.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.