Thursday, December 6, 2007

Felony Murder

This New York Times article discusses the felony murder rule, using the case of Ryan Holle, now serving life in prison, as a jumping-off point. As one might expect, there are conflicting interpretations of the facts, but the basic story is this: Holle was out partying with some friends one night, when, at least somewhat intoxicated, he loaned his car to a friend. His friend and three other individuals drove over to the home of a local marijuana dealer with the intent of robbing it. Which they did. In addition, they bludgeoned to death the dealer's 18-year-old daughter, Jessica Snyder, with a shotgun they found at the residence.

All four were convicted of murder, as was Holle, under the felony murder doctrine, which the New York Times describes as "a distinctively American legal doctrine that makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer for murders committed during felonies like burglaries, rapes and robberies." This rule "generally broadens murder liability for participants in violent felonies in two ways. An unintended killing during a felony is considered murder under the rule. So is, as Mr. Holle learned, a killing by an accomplice."

The New York Times notes that the Brits -- whose common law brought us the rule -- abolished the doctrine in the late fifties, while India and other common law countries have done so as well, including our Canadian neighbors. The argument against the rule, generally, is that it is disproportionate, because the defendant is being held responsible for something he didn't personally do. The counter to that is that all participants in a felony share blame for the foreseeable consequences.

Holle, according to the Times article, "had given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary." Indeed, he also testified that "he had been told it might be necessary to 'knock out' Jessica Snyder." So he knew both that a robbery was planned and that violence might well be necessary. Now Holle claims he didn't actually believe them -- he thought that the talk of the robbery was a joke. If true that might well be exculpatory, but, based on the sketchy account in the article, it sounds like the jury didn't believe him.

The problem with The New York Times article is that it conflates two distinct issues. The first issue is Holle's case, and the second issue is the felony murder rule, in general. The article tries to cast doubt on on Holle's culpability, and thereby to undermine the rule, in general. But that doesn't necessarily follow. Even if you believe that the evidence wasn't sufficient in his case, or that he didn't do enough to help that he ought to found guilty, you can still believe in the rule's application, in general. That said, Adam Liptak, the author of the article, deserves credit for fairly presenting the facts that would tend to show Holle did know of the car's intended use and is therefore at least arguably culpable.

The same cannot be said of all the bloggers commmenting on the article. The dishonesty is particularly apparent at TAPPED, where Brad Plumer says:

Do I have this right? Florida courts have long rejected the argument that gun wholesalers are at all responsible for any murders committed with the weapons they sell. But, as The New York Times reports today, if a groggy 20-year-old in Florida lends some friends his car one morning, and they end up killing someone, he can be convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole?


[Correction: he isn't at TAPPED. See update below.] Conveniently left out is that Holle's pals didn't just "end up killing someone," as if by accident. Nor did Holle innocently lend some friends his car. Rather, he lent it to them after being told that they were going to use it for a burglary.

Scott Lemieux is equally dishonest, stating that "Via Brad Plumer, Adam Liptak discusses the case of a 20-year-old in Florida serving life without parole for lending some friends his car. " Sure, that's true enough -- but utterly misleading, as it leaves out the fact that he was told it was going to be used in a burglary.

Radley Balko makes a similar error -- he quotes a passage from the the same New York Times article, and just like the guys at TAPPED, he leaves out the salient facts. Instead, he says this:

Maybe this guy should have been more careful who he lent his car to. Maybe he shouldn’t have drank so much. Maybe he shouldn’t have been partying with such shady characters. But life in prison? Come on.


Or maybe he shouldn't have loaned his car to people who told him they planned to use it in a burglary.

Not surprisingly, Balko's old nemesis, Patterico, is on the case. As Patterico observes, "Balko’s post makes it sound like this fellow simply lent his car to some people, without any idea that they were going to go commit a burglary or hurt anyone."

If you want to argue against the felony murder rule, fine. Personally, I don't have a problem with it, in most instances -- I think that those who participate in or facilitate serious felonies share moral culpability with those who actually pull the trigger or do the beating. And such liability is easy to avoid: if you hang out with people who like to beat, rob, or rape other people, don't loan them your car.

But why is it that the folks who are so critical of the felony murder rule have to lie about the facts, or rather leave out salient facts? If they really think it's a bad rule, then they ought to be willing to argue that Holle shouldn't be held liable for murder even if he knew they were going to be bludgeon the girl to death and lent them the car anyway. Heck, if you really don't think the felony murder rule is a good rule, only the guy who actually did the bludgeoning should be convicted of murder -- even the other burglars get off the hook.

If that's their argument, they ought to make it, rather than twisting the facts to try to make it seem as if an injustice is occurring.

UPDATE: In the comments, Brad Plummer corrects an error on my part -- I had said he was associated with TAPPED, which is not the case. Brad Plumer has his own blog, which I could have noted by the simple expedient of reading. I had found his article following the link from Scott Lemieux at TAPPED, and somehow I got it in my head they were both TAPPED bloggers. One might note the irony of my making a simple factual mistake in a post which accuses other bloggers of getting the facts wrong.

Brad is also quite good-natured about my reference to the way he and the other bloggers referred to the facts, which made me feel worse than I would have if he had launched a scathing attack on me. I used the term "lie" to describe their accounts, and I now think that was overstating. Do I really think they consciously lied? Well, probably not, so I apologize to Brad Plumer, Scott Lemieux, and Radley Balko for using that term.

I suspect, instead, that they didn't see Holle's knowledge of the intended use of his vehicle as being a salient fact. My guess is that this is the reason why all three failed to include it in their original posts. For reasons I've tried to articulate, I think it is the key fact. I continue to believe their descriptions are misleading without it. But a lie is an intentional misstatement of fact, and that was an overstatement on my part. I should not have accused them of bad faith.

I still think they were wrong, though.

UPDATE 2: I fixed a couple of typos.

UPDATE 3: Additional Thoughts Felony Murder Here.