Charles Grodin doesn’t like the felony murder rule.
The felony murder rule, which essentially holds that anyone who is proven to have been involved with a felony during which someone was killed is guilty of First Degree Murder, is one of the harsher devices in American jurisprudence. I must confess, I sort of like it, and always have. Like all laws, however, it doesn’t work perfectly all the time.
The reason I like the rule is that it acknowledges the real danger of initiating felonies, crimes that are serious and destructive. If you burn a business down to collect the insurance, for example, you should be held responsible by the law if the fire gets out of control and someone is killed. The law combines criminal and civil offenses; the felony murder rule is like a negligent crime principle. It is a law that implicitly understands Chaos Theory at a basic level: actions often have unpredictable consequences, and even if the consequences are worse than you expected or could have expected, you still are accountable for putting dangerous and perhaps deadly forces in motion. If you commit a felony, you better make damn sure you know what you are doing, because if people get killed, you will be held to a doubly harsh standard. Better yet, don’t commit the crime.
Don’t commit the crime. I have this reaction to all complaints about harsh sentences when the individual complaining (or having an advocate complain on his behalf) is guilty of the crime involved. You committed capital murder? I’m sorry you don’t like your death penalty, but I couldn’t care less. You knew the risk, and you get no sympathy from me. The same applies to felony murder. The felon rolled the dice, and lost. (Somebody else lost too: the victim who was killed.) Nobody made him (or her) roll.
In law school, I admit that I found the case law quirky. A bank robber, under felony murder, is guilty of the crime when his accomplice is killed in an exchange of bullets with the police. Again, the theory is that the robber and everyone involved in the robbery set in motion a series of dangerous and unpredictable forces when they executed their plan. I have no problem with that. I am especially happy when the felony murder rule is used against white collar criminals. You were part of a scheme to substitute cheap car parts for the correct ones on the assembly line, and as a result some motorists were killed? First degree murder, no question about it, and everyone involved in the scam, right down the line, is guilty of first degree murder. This is the felony murder rule at its best, in my view. If only it was applied to such cases more frequently.
The rest of the world doesn’t like the felony murder rule, which isn’t a surprise.The rest of the world, or much of the West, doesn’t like punishing criminals at all, at least not sufficiently to show respect for property and life. It is easy to mount a persuasive argument against the rule, for no doubt about it, the rule in practice leads to unpredictable consequences sometimes—-but then, so does committing felonies. When a particular application of the rule is unjust, it is up to judges, prosecutors and others in the system to minimize the injustice, if injustice there is. No rule or system works perfectly; that does not mean that we shouldn’t have rules.
Over at The Nation, Grodin—yes, the former comic actor turned liberal scold; he was Bill Maher before Bill Maher was, or perhaps an earlier, smarter Alec Baldwin—has found what seems to be a particularly weird instance of the felony murder rule in practice. A man with no criminal record loaned his car to a friend knowing that he was going to use it to buy or steal drugs. It was a robbery, someone was killed, and the man, Ryan Holle, was convicted of first degree murder for a crime his friend committed while Holle was asleep in his bed. He’s now been in jail for eleven years, he has no chance of parole, and his appeal for clemency has been rejected.
To Charles Grodin, this is obvious proof that the felony murder rule is unjust. He writes:
“I personally know of no other felony murder conviction where the person was not even present, and the pre-meditated part of the conviction suggests that Ryan knew his car was going to be used in the course of a murder, which to me, isn’t credible. To the best of my knowledge, in the entire history of the criminal justice system in America, no one has ever been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for loaning a car and going to sleep….A few years ago I was on a television show with the father of the girl who was murdered in the robbery attempt. The father felt that it was entirely justified that Ryan Holle spend his life in prison…I felt the father and mother were a lot more responsible for their daughter’s death than Ryan Holle…both parents in no way should have been involved in selling drugs from their house. It would only be a question of time before the wrong person knocked on the door. In my judgment, parents who would do that with two teenage daughters at home have a lot more responsibility for this tragedy than Ryan Holle.”
1. The fact that Holle was asleep when the murder was committed that put him in jail is an oddity, but that’s all it is. Charles Manson wasn’t present when the murders he was convicted of planning and causing were committed; Osama bin Laden was far away from the Twin Towers on 9-11. So what?
2. A jury, one that heard all the evidence and was present during the trial, apparently did conclude that Ryan Holle knew his car was going to be used in the commission of a felony, and that felony caused a murder. That’s all the law requires. Grodin’s belief that it isn’t credible “that Ryan knew his car was going to be used in the course of a murder” is a double non sequitur, as well as a straw man. The jury didn’t have to believe that either, and that’s not what felony murder means—felony murder, Charles…focus. That’s your topic. Nobody has to believe that Holle knew that a murder would result, and what Grodin finds credible or not doesn’t matter anyway.
3. “To the best of my knowledge, in the entire history of the criminal justice system in America, no one has ever been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for loaning a car and going to sleep.” All right, now, is “loaning a car and going to sleep” really the crime Holle was convicted of? No, of course not. He was convicted of being an accessory to a felony that resulted in the death of a human being, making him guilty of felony murder. The same would have been true if he knowingly supplied Bonnie and Clyde with their getaway car for a bank heist, and they shot someone to death during the escape. The article made me remember why Grodin’s progressively less amusing talk show became unwatchable. His arguments are incoherent, emotional, and intellectually dishonest.
4. “I felt the father and mother were a lot more responsible for their daughter’s death than Ryan Holle,” he writes. Grodin doesn’t understand causation, a core principle in criminal law as well as tort law. Yes, running a drug operation subjected their daughter to danger, but the robbery was a superseding cause. It, not the drug business, was what led directly to the daughter’s death. I wouldn’t object to a version of the felony murder law that held the drug-dealing parents culpable as well, but that’s not the law now. Moreover, whether or not someone else is “more responsible” for a murder than one of those convicted of causing it is irrelevant. This isn’t musical chairs. The fact that the parents could be arguably found guilty of felony murder too if the law was written to cover their conduct doesn’t have any bearing on Holle’s guilt.
Holle apparently turned down a ten years in prison plea deal, and gambled that the jury wouldn’t convict him. Oops. I’m not crazy about the extent of his sentence, but I wasn’t on the jury. I think the prosecutor was probably over-zealous, but I haven’t seen the evidence. Personally, in the abstract, I would consider Holle for clemency, but only in the abstract. A prosecutor, judge and jury decided that he had enough of a hand in the death of an innocent teen that the felony murder rule should apply. That is a lot more persuasive than the indignation of Charles Grodin, who can’t construct a coherent or fair argument.
If all instances of the felony murder rule involved defendants like Ryan Holle, then I agree, the rule would be due for scrutiny, reform, and maybe elimination. As it is, however, the system has plenty of balances in place that could have, would have, and maybe should have prevented its harsh application in his case. Even accepting Grodin’s weak argument that Holle’s sentence is excessive is not sufficient reason to condemn the felony murder rule itself. It might not have worked perfectly in this case. But the fact that a law isn’t perfect is not an indictment. No law works every time.
Post Script: I also want to add this. The Nation describes Grodin as “an advocate for non-violent inmates. He is the recipient of the William Kunstler Award for Racial Justice. He was cited by Governor Pataki in 2004 for helping revise New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.” This is like describing me in a bio as “the inventor of a successful Boston Red Sox board game.” Charles Grodin is a professional actor and comic whose career has waned, and who has an interest in politics and public affairs. He doesn’t have a law degree, or even a college degree, and he possesses no qualifications or expertise whatsoever that make his opinion on the felony murder rule worth publishing, except the celebrity that arises out of his work in movies and TV. The Nation’s description of him, I believe, is deceptive and designed to mislead readers.
Pointer: Advice Goddess
Source: The Nation