Monday, December 10, 2007

More On Felony Murder

This is a followup to my earlier post on felony murder, in which I took Radley Balko and some other bloggers to task for their characterization of the facts of a case discussed in a New York Times article on felony murder. In that case, a guy named Ryan Holle was convicted of murder because he loaned his car to his friends -- after being informed that they intended to use it for a burglary, and that it might be necessary to do violence to a young lady named Jessica Snyder in the course of this burglary, Jessica, age 18, was bludgeoned to death by Mr. Holle's friends.

Radley Balko has now added an update to his earlier post, graciously admitting that he should probably have included in his original post the fact that Holle initially told police that he had been informed about the intended robbery and possible battery. But these facts don't change his mind:

It didn’t affect my opposition to the charge, though, because the guy also said he was drunk, and thought his friends were joking. So his crime here seems to have been an error in judgment. Or maybe an error in judgment affected by drinking too much. I can certainly imagine a scenario in college where I, having no criminal record (this guy didn’t, either), may have had too much too drink at a party, had some acquaintance say, “hey, can we borrow your car?” respond, “why?” and they respond, “because we want to break into someone’s house and steal their weed”,” there’s at least a chance I might have thought they were yanking my chain.

To begin with, Radley seems to be taking Holle's current version at face value, accepting it as fact. But it seems to contradict what he told the police at the time and his own testimony that he'd been told it might be necessary to "knock out" Jessica Snyder. I realize that he works on a lot of these "police abuse" cases, but it isn't necessary to take every convict's claims at face value. More to the point, while Holle apparently didn't have a record, we don't know whether his buddies had records, and that's the relevant question, in determining whether it's likely that Holle thought they were kidding. Sure, if one of my friends said, "can I borrow your car to rob somebody," I'd assume they were joking. But then, there's a pretty good chance (as in, a near-certainty) that they would be joking, because I don't hang out with criminals. If Holle hangs out with criminals, he'd be much less likely to think they were yanking his chain.

But that's not Radley's sole argument:

Believe that about this guy, or don’t. I don’t know how credible this guy is. It does seem clear, though, that he didn’t sit down with these guys and plan the burglary. There’s no mention of him getting a cut of the drugs they planned to steal. His culpability here seems to boil down to a split second of bad judgment. No premeditation. No specific intent. The guy who lent someone his car–after a night of partying under terms where there’s some doubt about whether he knew the real intentions of the lendees–got the same charge and sentence as the guys who committed a premeditated robbery, during which they smashed in a woman’s face with a metal safe. That really sound like a just outcome?

Well, I would have sentenced the actual killer to death, so that would eliminate the disparity between Holle's sentence and the killer's. And I can certainly see arguing for reform of the felony murder rule -- maybe making felony murder a form of second degree murder. But, while Holle didn't plan the murder, he did facilitate by providing transportation. So no, it doesn't strike me as being particularly unjust. He was part of the criminal enterprise.

If the case of Ryan Holle gets your goat, though, this California case really ought to drive you bonkers.

Here's what happened: three young black men, including a 22-year-old named Renato Hughes, broke into the home of Shannon Edmonds, who is white, intending to steal some marijuana. During the course of the burglary, they beat Edmonds' stepson, Dale Lafferty, with a baseball bat, causing permanent brain damage severe enough to render him unable to live independently or even feed himself.

During the course of the robbery, Shannon Edmonds managed to get his gun, and he shot the intruders, killing both of Hughes's accomplices. Edmonds had both marijuana and prescription drugs in his system, but he had prescriptions for both (remember, California has legal medical marijuana). Edmonds isn't charged at all. Renato Hughes, by contrast, is charged with felony murder under the California "provocative acts" doctrine. That's right, he's charged with felony murder in the death of his accomplices, despite the fact that it was the homeowner, not charged, who pulled the trigger.

Predictably, some people are playing the race card. They claim the victim ought to be the one in the dock:

The NAACP complained that prosecutors came down too hard on Hughes, who also faces robbery, burglary and assault charges. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

The Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and pastor at Hughes' church, said the case demonstrates the legal system is racist in remote Lake County, aspiring wine country 100 miles north of San Francisco. The sparsely populated county of 13,000 people is 91 percent white and 2 percent black.

Brown and other NAACP officials are asking why the homeowner is walking free. Tests showed Edmonds had marijuana and prescription medication in his system the night of the shooting. Edmonds had a prescription for both the pot and the medication to treat depression.

"This man had no business killing these boys," Brown said. "They were shot in the back. They had fled."
Note the use of the term "boy," despite the fact that the two invaders were 21 and 22, old enough to vote, sign contracts, even buy a beer. All a way of posthumously deflecting responsibility for their own criminality. (I guess Reverend Brown follow the Maureen Dowd theory of childhood.)

According to Reverend Brown's apparent theory, a homeowner has to turn on a dime and hold his fire the second his attackers begin to flee, even if they are still in the house and still a potential threat. That is simply unreasonable -- a home invasion creates a situation of total confusion. Edmonds had no way of knowing whether these people were no longer a threat. And even if they had begun to flee, we have no way of knowing that, with the adrenaline and confusion, this fact had reached his brain at that point. It is absurd to second-guess a homeowner subjected to this sort of attack. (Another reason why police no-knock raids should be strictly limited.)

It is hardly surprising that Hughes's mother is equally outraged. She thinks that her son and his friends were there to buy drugs, not rob the place. Well, I suppose that it is barely possible that this is some sort of drug-deal-gone-bad situation, but it seems unlikely. Most drug sellers don't shoot their customers, and her version doesn't account for the beaten stepson.

It is undoubtedly difficult to face a situation in which your son may well spend the rest of his natural life in prison for a crime he committed at a very young age. It is equally difficult to accept the fact that your son is a thug. But maybe if Judy Hughes and Reverend Brown had done a better job teaching Renato not to break into people's homes to rob them, they wouldn't be facing this predicament today. As in the Jena 6 case, it's a lot easier to cry about racism than to accept responsibility for thuggery.

Frankly, I have sympathy for the real victim, Dale Lafferty, who suffered permanent brain damage. And for Shannon Edmonds, who will undoubtedly suffer anguish over the killings, no matter how justified they were. I have no sympathy left for Renato Hughes or the other two invading beasts killed in the act of their crime. And lest anybody claim racial animus here, I assure you I would have a similar reaction if the invading beasts had been white. If Hughes rots in jail for the rest of his life, well, it's not so bad as what he did to his victims.

This case hasn't gotten a lot of traction in the blogosphere, but I imagine that, if it did, Hughes would get a lot more sympathy, though not from me. I want to acknowledge SteveAudio, whom I credit for the link to the original article. SteveAudio is troubled by what he characterizes as "vigilante style action" by the homeowner. I'd be troubled too if Edmonds had tracked the two guys down and killed them weeks later. But I think it's pretty reasonable to kill attackers who are in your house, particularly when they have beaten one of the occupants with a baseball bat.

Jeralyn over a TalkLeft is also troubled by this case, saying, "I don't like the idea of making defendants liable for the acts of victims." Honestly, I don't see why not -- if the act of the victim is a natural and foreseeable consequence of the crime. In this case, it is eminently predictable that a homeowner might fight back and kill one of the invaders.

Jeralyn also says something else that is quit bizarre. She says that Hughes should be charged with the beating of Dale Lafferty, "assuming it wasn't self-defense." At first I thought this had to be some sort of strange thinko, but then she goes on to say that one of the details she'd like to know is "Was the stepson brandishing a weapon (like a rifle or a gun) at the time he was beaten?"

This suggests that Jeralyn actually believes that these home invaders somehow had the right to engage in "self-defense" with a baseball bat if Dale Lafferty was brandishing a weapon. That's insane -- Lafferty was in his home. He had every right to brandish a weapon at intruders coming into his house. I would argue he had the right to fire a weapon at them. Once you break into somebody's house, you don't have the right to engage in "self-defense."


MikeT said...

It is nonsensical (thus typical of left-wing thought) to say that those on the offense have a legitimate right to act in self-defense during something they started.

I bet you that Jeralyn's tune would be totally different if a rape victim had shot her attacker in the back while he fled her home. Since leftists don't value private property rights, they can't imagine how someone might be truly afraid for their lives, to the point where shooting someone in the back is a legitimate course of action.

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