A Chaos Theory Law, An Anomalous Case, And Charles Grodin’s Lament

I swear, I'm not trying to belittle Charles Grodin by posting this photo of him back when he earned his living with his primary talent, which was comedy. I just want you to recall who the guy is, since he and the Nation obviously would like you to forget.

I swear, I’m not trying to belittle Charles Grodin by posting this photo of him back when he earned his living with his primary talent, which was comedy. I just want you to recall who the guy is, since he and the Nation obviously would like you to think he’s somebody else.

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.”

Let’s see:

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

34 thoughts on “A Chaos Theory Law, An Anomalous Case, And Charles Grodin’s Lament

  1. “I personally know of no other felony murder conviction where the person was not even present,…”
    Well, that Charles Manson guy was sentenced to death, (converted to life when Calif. ceased the death penalty), for the Tate-LaBianca murders, and he wasn’t present at the scene, so Mr. Grodin presumably feels that Manson’s conviction is also unjust.
    I was unable to determine if Manson was asleep when the actual murders occurred.
    Celebretard commentators like Grodin are useless, or worse. See: Jenny McCarthy on vaccines.

    • Worse. The question is why any reputable publication gives them a forum. Of course, when and if Congress decides to revisit the felony murder rule, I’m sure that Grodin will be asked to testify.

    • Hi Joe, The only thing is that Manson knew what was happening and it seems the Holle guy didn’t but not sure. The question I have if this was a drug deal that had gone wrong and a fight broke out then it wouldn’t be premeditated murder anyway. I wish the article would have said more about that.

      • Manson did more than know, and he wasn’t convicted of felony murder, because he engineered and planned the whole slaughter. The prisoner in this case claimed that his room mate had talked about a robbery on the night in question, but he thought he was joking…the old “I thought it was a joke” defense. Seldom works well, in my experience. The jury obviously didn’t believe him.

      • Mr Holle has admitted that he knew this robbery was going to take place. He conveniently said he thought they where kidding. His friends have done this stuff before. He was aware. Now does he deserve to spend the rest of his life in prison? I don’t agree with that at all. He should have taken the plea.

  2. Would it also be felony murder if the keys were left in the car knowing there are criminals about who could take the car resulting in someone’s death?

    • No, because no such person would be charged with a felony. Negligent actions that end up assisting a felony that the individual didn’t intend to assist don’t constitute felonies. The jury in the case at issue obviously was convinced that the defendant knew his care would be involved in a a crime….to which, I might add, what an idiot.

  3. Given the misclassification of minor offences as felonies – some of which do not require a mens rea and the many cases of police using deadly force when not appropriate, the system is broken.

    See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/nyregion/unarmed-man-is-charged-with-wounding-bystanders-shot-by-police-near-times-square.html

    Initially Mr. Broadnax was arrested on misdemeanor charges of menacing, drug possession and resisting arrest. But the Manhattan district attorney’s office persuaded a grand jury to charge Mr. Broadnax with assault, a felony carrying a maximum sentence of 25 years. Specifically, the nine-count indictment unsealed on Wednesday said Mr. Broadnax “recklessly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death.”

    “The defendant is the one that created the situation that injured innocent bystanders,” said an assistant district attorney, Shannon Lucey.

    Had one of those shot by the police died…

    • To be fair, that’s just blame-shifting by a feckless police force.

      Blame shifting, I might add, that is aided by an equally feckless citizenry that accepts anything that comes out of a cop’s or prosecutor’s mouth as gospel.

      • Amen. How much of a scam is that? Cop shoots gun, because he can, and nobody can stop him. Criminal/suspect/shady looking bystander dies. Cops and in-cahoots prosecutors get SOMEONE tried with a felony. Dead person is now victim of felony murder. Blame placed at feet of person charged with felony murder- they are either convicted and the murder is their fault, or they are acquitted because they “got off on a technicality” with help from some scumbag defense attourney. Either way, it’s not the cop’s fault, it’s that felony murderer’s fault.

        • What? Are you seriously saying that cops are to blame when someone gets shot in a robbery, and they have no accountability? Do you know what cops go through if they shoot someone? Your comment sounds like the crazed fantasy of the hippies who used to shout “Pigs!” at the police as they drove by in the Sixties. Those who initiate the robbery are responsible for any human damage that results, including their own deaths.

          If a teacher had been packing heat at Sandy Hook, shot to stop the killer in self-defense and tragically killed one of the children, would you argue that Adam Lanza was innocent of that death?

          • No, but they are responsible (or damn well should be) when they open fire on an unarmed man in a crowd without an efforts at aNY other methods of resolution.

            They didn’t even try tazers or pepper spray, for fuck’s sake.

            There was a time when cops were required to attempt to deescalate the situation, instead of wildly firing into the fucking crowd.

              • But this case we are talking about – the guy in Times Square – the man was not committing a felony, and the cops opened fire. We are saying that the efforts to make to charge to guy with felonies resulting from the gunshot wounds is bullshit.

          • Gee, how’d you know I was getting peckish? Those words you just put in my mouth should tide me over nicely til lunch.

            I know you like to think/pretend that the entire justice system is made of people who would never ever act badly- you’ve brought it up in discussions on capital punishment as well, dismissing the idea that prosecutors are perfectly willing to cover up exculpatory evidence in order to keep their conviction rate high.

            I said nothing of the kind about “cops are to blame when someone gets shot in a robbery.” I DO say that cops are WAY too trigger-happy as a group, and the constant pounding of law and order rhetoric lets them get away with it. Let me spell it out for you: I think that if, in the heat of the moment, one or more police officers started shooting recklessly and someone was killed, many police are perfecly capable of making sure there’s a felony charge involved so they can push felony murder charges to shift public perception of blame entirely onto the charged criminal. And Prosecutors, frequently seeing themselves as allies of the police rather than seekers of justice, are perfectly capable of helping.

            • Luke: the felony murder rule is automatic. It doesn’t have to be “pushed,” and no blame shifting is involved. If a felony results in a death for any reason, the rule says that its first degree murder. True, it doesn’t have to be prosecuted, but nothing does. And the fact that the felons are accountable doesn’t mean the cops wouldn’t be. If you set off a bomb to blow up a hot dog stand and the concussion causes the doors to spring open in the nearby home for the criminally insane, and the maniacs get loose and kill people, the maniacs are still accountable, but the bomb-maker is guilty of felony murder too.

              • I’m not talking about cases like “the bank robber committed a felony by robbing the bank,” I’m talking about the borderline cases, where a given set of actions sits near the line between felony and misdemeanor, or even if a crime was committed at all. I obviously didn’t hear testimony in this case but I’m curous how they actually established that he KNEW his friend would use his car for a crime. Not that he couldn’t have known, just that it would be hard to prove. And yes, a jury believed it- juries, as humans, are susceptible to all sorts of rhetorical tricks.

                This also applies to your repsonse to Scott, above- I’m not simply talking about legalities. I know that a cop who kills someone will still be formally on the hook for it, even if a felony murder charge is brought agianst a third party. I think the thin blue line generally takes care of those- True punishment for police misconduct is painfully rare- but what I really mean is the battle for public perception. If enough people become convinced that police get up to shenanigans and then clear themselves, that’s a problem. If you make sure there’s someone else to blame for the crime, you keep public perception focused on that guy who lent the car and is guilty of felony murder, and the mean old Internal Affairs office that is daring to investigate the hero officer (and find that he did not break protocol, no doubt).

  4. If you want to attack someone for his beliefs, that’s fine — but mocking credentials is more than a little below the belt. One can be a successful broadcaster without having a degree in law, economics, business, or journalism. (And for the record, I agree with your analysis above — just not your approach.) Every time Rush says something stupid or outrageous, should I be allowed to say, “Well, what do you expect from a former sports broadcaster and DJ who flunked out of college?”

    • I’m mocking the fact that the credentials listed are misleading, and intentionally so. When I read the joke of a bio, I assumed this was a lawyer with the same name as the movie star! Kunstler was a famous lawyer, after all…awards named after lawyers are typically intended for lawyers. I gave out some of them when I worked at ATLA. Since the article itself was poorly reasoned, researched and written, why was it published? Presumably based on expertise or authority. What authority, then? If this was the opinion of a masters in criminology or penology, or a judge, OK…that at least explains why he was given a forum. But Grodin was published only because he is/was a minor celebrity, as well as passing the Nation’s litmus test for correct ideology. If you write an essay at the level of a college drop-out, it is not unfair to mention that you are, in fact, one. If he was a Yale grad, believe me, I’d suggest that Eli was asking for its diploma back.

      • You led off and ended with those attacks on Grodin because it added color to your post making for a more interesting read. But I do think it reached the level of an adhominem attack because those little zings obviously were completely unnecessary. So, is the rule that it is okay for one to do that as long as that person’s arguments are later scrutinized for content? Can’t you just disagree with the content and avoid the insults altogether? What if you simply DISAGREE with that person’s views on something like abortion or religion? Are zingers still allowed?

        In my opinion, you are better than this.

        Re Luke’s comments below, medical advice is in a different category — as is science and technology. But, last time I checked, we encourage all Americans to be engaged in political conversation.

        Dang it — I forgot to mention Rush’s failed marriages, drug arrest, and addiction. Oh — and the obligatory tasteless fat joke, and that he has a face made for radio. But since I’d rather attack him for his hate spew, I guess it was unncessary.

        • No, I really object to the deceptive bio that leaves out who the guy is. It’s like Bill Cosby when he just lists his education degree. Don’t play games with the reader. Afraid they’ll discount the opinion because he’s an actor? Tough–he IS an actor, and if people are biased, they’re biased. How would you feel about an essay by, say, Bernard Madoff that includes a bio omitting the fact that he’s THE Bernard Madoff? If I wrote, “This guy’s a liar and a scamster, and the readers have a right to know,” is that poisoning the well?

          • That’s completely different and you know it. If Clint Eastwood were to write an essay, does he have to include a bio linking to his IMDB profile — or has he been involved in politics long enough now that he doesn’t have to do that? What if Reagan were still with us?

            And what’s your explanation for this? “Charles Grodin is a professional actor and comic whose career has waned.” That loaded sentence suggests that Grodin is doing political commentary because he can’t get another acting job. It can’t be that he retired, or else you would have chosen different phrasing. It was unnecessary.

            Didn’t Cosby write a dissertation? Even if you don’t like him, he’s legit. Can you star in a play without acknowledging in your bio that you are a full-time attorney?

            • I don’t see it as different. The point is that it’s deceptive, and hides the pertinent information. George W. Bush may be a painter these days, but only referencing his painting in a bio would be deceptive. My description of Grodin is informative and accurate. He’s a one time actor who doesn’t act any more, out of choice or necessity. His career HAS waned. He still uses his celebrity to open doors that others are better qualified to go through. Focusing on an award he never would have received if he weren’t a celebrity as his “identity” couldn’t be more misleading.

              • “He still uses his celebrity to open doors that others are better qualified to go through.”

                That’s true for just about every employed — and elected — individual out there. If a better candidate for my position came along tomorrow, I wouldn’t quit to make room for that person. I have no obligation to do that. If my employer chose to keep me on, that’s his business.

    • Given the recent article on fallacies, I feel obliged to point out that what you’re talking about is poisoning the well, a specific subset of the Ad Hominem fallacy. Poisoning the well consists of publicizing details that aren’t actually relevant in order to discredit everything an opponent says in the future- To use your example, if you say “Rush Limbaugh is a sports broadcaster who flunked out of college” you’ve set him up as a dumb slacker meathead jock, and therefore everythign he says is probably stupid.

      The tough part of this one is realizing relevance. Attacking credentials can be used to show that an opponent is speaking without true knowledge, or it can be used to poison the well. One of my pet bugaboos in this area is Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine activism. It’s valid to point out that she has no medical training whatsoever, and that her main “evidence” is a study that’s been discredited and retracted. Those are directly relevant to her ability to speak on the issue. However, many choose to say “Oh good, a porn star knows about vaccines” or something along those lines- poisoning the well, becuase a porn star is perfectly capable of educating themselves on a topic and speaking intelligently on it.

      • Um, there was no “poisoning the well”. Jack spent an entire article discrediting Grodin’s argument, and only mentioned at the very end Grodin’s lack of credentials to speak on the subject. By demonstrating the incoherence of the argument first, he fairly provided evidence of idiocy. The lack of meaningful credentials is now merely a warning to not expect much better in the future.

        • I didn’t say Jack was doing that, now did I? In fact I think I was pretty clear about how there’s a difference between pointing out someone’s lack of education on a subject and poisoning the well.

            • Yep, just clarifying that what she’s talking about has a formal name. It is, at least in my opinion, one of the harder fallacies to call out properly too, especially when you’re dealing with politics and opinion.

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