Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
Have you heard of the murder rule? It exists. It’s a real thing. And tens of thousands of men, women, and children are in prison for it right now. Nearly every country in the world has done away with it, most of them generations ago, except for the good ‘ol USA.
We don’t call it the justice system on this podcast, we call it the legal system because so little justice comes from it. Today, I need to unpack and explain what may be the single most problematic rule in the entire legal system. And we can change it. Not in one day, but we can start to loosen the lid on the jar.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)!
Usually, in our criminal legal system, in order to convict someone of a crime it matters 1) what a person does and 2) what a person intended to do. In law, what a person does is known as actus reus — what is the action. What is on a person’s mind — what they intended — is known as mens rea.
It’s the hallmark of a civilized system — we care about individual actions and individual intent.
Here’s an example of this principle. For a crime of misdemeanor theft, the prosecutor has to prove to a jury that someone took something (that’s the act) with the intent to permanently deprive the rightful owner of that thing (that’s the intent). So, let’s say, I’m in a store to buy a toothbrush. I pick up the toothbrush and then leave the store. That would look like a theft but let’s say I left the store because I got a cell phone call from my daughter’s school and there was no reception in the store and so I rushed outside to hear the call. Or let’s say I left the store because suddenly I realized I left my wallet in the car. In both of those situations, I had no intent to permanently deprive the store. The prosecutor could not show that I had committed a crime because I didn’t intend to. What you do matters but a person’s intent also matters. And this makes sense. You wouldn’t want to be convicted of a crime because of an accident.
And this is for a misdemeanor theft.
And this makes sense, because in our system, we say that liberty is paramount. Before we are going to let a prosecutor strip you of your rights, send you away from all your loved ones, send you away from your family, and put you in a prison cell, they should have to prove that a person did something wrong and meant to do something wrong.
However, there is one old relic in our criminal law where what a person actually does and what a person intends does not matter at all. A prosecutor can lock up someone for life for a murder a person did not commit — and everyone knows they did not commit. A prosecutor can lock up someone for life and everyone knows they did not intend to hurt anyone. A prosecutor can tell the jury that it doesn’t matter that the person did not intend to hurt anyone.
This rule is known as the felony murder rule.
The rule says that if a person is committing a felony — let’s say robbery — and a person gets killed, all the people involved in the robbery can now be held responsible for the murder. This law came from the middle ages in England and it has been banned in all other countries whose legal system originally came from England. It has been abolished in Ireland, Canada, and India. It was abolished in England in 1956. But it still exists in most states here.
Here’s how it works — here’s a real story from a case that’s happening right now outside of Chicago.
Let me break it down. (Break it down music)
In Lake County, 6 teenagers from Chicago, ranging in age from 14 to 18, went to go steal a car. Now this is wrong and we know it. Nobody should steal a car to go on a joyride. But, that’s what they were aiming to do here. They weren’t planning on keeping it for themselves or selling it. They were going to take this car, drive it around somewhere, then dump it. It’s dumb. I know. I’m not saying it’s a crime without a punishment, but these were high school children making a really dumb mistake.
But what happened was this. A homeowner came out of his house with a gun, and then fired at the group. They were 40 feet away from him and he shot at them saying he was afraid for his life. He shot the 14-year-old in the head and killed him.
The response of the Lake County prosecutor is to charge the other 5 teenagers — 4 of whom were the cousins of this 14 year old — with murder.
None of them had a gun. None of them pulled the trigger. None of them intended to hurt or kill anyone. But because a death occurred during the course of the car theft, all 5 children are being charged under the felony murder rule.
The Lake County DA did not have to charge the teenagers with murder. Prosecutors can decide what crime to charge. But they have chosen to apply this archaic, broad statute to charge the other five teenagers with their friend’s murder.
In Illinois, like in other states that still apply this rule, a person can be charged with first-degree murder even if they did not inflict any harm or even commit an act of violence.
Here’s another recent example of the felony murder rule being charged recently.
(Break it down music)
In Ohio, Eric Richards, a member of the police SWAT team, was assigned to an undercover sting meant to thwart an online robbery scheme.
The alleged robber was Julius Tate. According to newspaper articles, Tate used social media to say he was selling something, but when people arrived to get their purchase, he robbed them. Tate’s girlfriend, who allegedly helped him set up the robbery, was 16-year-old Masonique Saunders.
According to the police report, an undercover officer playing the role of a customer met Tate in an unmarked police car not far from Saunders’s house. Saunders was not there.
Officer Richards was in the backseat of the police car, serving as backup. They say Tate robbed the undercover officer at gunpoint, and Richards, from the back seat, shot and killed Tate.
Saunders was arrested six days later and charged with the murder of her boyfriend, who was shot and killed by Officer Richards. Remember, Masonique was not there, was not armed, and had not killed anyone. She was charged as an adult for murder and faced life in prison. Protesters in Franklin County banded together and protested at the courthouse and at the district attorney’s office to stop Masonique from being charged as an adult for murder under this horrible ancient law. They won.
Masonique eventually took a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in juvenile prison for involuntary manslaughter as well as aggravated robbery. But although Saunders evaded a life sentence for murder, some people say the deal was still unjust, as she played no part in her then-boyfriend’s actual death.
Felony murder is a draconian charge for anyone; but, when children or young adults are charged with felony murder, they are branded as “violent offenders” for life, and they are subject to adult court, adult prison sentences, and the same sentencing range as the person who “pulled the trigger.”
The US Supreme Court and other courts have repeatedly said that young people are more likely to act in groups; are more susceptible to peer pressure, which also makes them more likely than adults to become involved in accomplice crimes; are greater risk takers; and fail to appreciate the consequences of their actions.
Science suggests our brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-20s. But you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that the vast majority of youth are more reckless, impulsive, and risk-prone than they will be as adults. This is why car insurance rates go down for people upon reaching the age of 25.
The felony murder law is out of step with the courts, with science, and with common sense.
This Lake County case is a tragic example of the felony murder statutue being grossly missapplied. If convicted, the teenagers will spend much of their lives behind bars. It’s time for Illinois and the remaining states around the country that have this law to do away with these outmoded laws that deny children and young adults the opportunity to receive a right-sized sentence for their offenses.
In California, the California Supreme Court called the rule “barbaric” way back in 1966 and then again in 1983. In 1983, the California Supreme Court said we would like to do away with it, but we can’t. Only the Legislature can. Thirty five years later, in 2018, the California Legislature seriously limited the felony murder rule. Starting in 2017, state Senator Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley and then state Senator Joel Anderson, a Republican from San Diego (and get this Senator Anderson was Donald Trump’s California campaign chairperson) got together and said, we have to change this old law. This is about personal responsibility. This is about justice. This is about not convicting people of a murder they did not do.
Because what they found is that this law was disproportionately applied to youth of color. And it was disproportionately applied to women. Seventy two percent of women serving life sentences for felony murder were not the actual shooters. They were the girlfriend who might have been the get-away driver or the girlfriend that was involved with a crime, but who never intended or agreed to hurt anyone, let alone kill someone.
So they said, okay, we’ll punish people for the crimes they did — for the robbery, for the burglary — but we’re not going to punish people for a murder they did not do. They said you can only be guilty of felony murder if you kill, intend to kill, or act with “reckless indifference” in the actual killing. You have to be at the scene and you have to do something that really threatens the victim.
Now, as it happens, in Illinois, there is currently legislation that was introduced a few months ago to limit the felony murder rule in Illinois. That legislation was introduced by Representative Justin Slaughter and could be voted on next year. We need to organize to get that passed and you’ll be hearing more about that from me in the future.
Action Step Music
But while we should organize to end the felony murder law in every state where it exists, we need to do something today to try to save the lives of 5 children in Lake County, Illinois.
Remember how I told you that protesters organized in Ohio to save Masonique Saunders from life in prison? They protested and got the prosecutor to not charge her as an adult with murder under this barbaric law. We need to do the same in Lake County. I need you to call the prosecutor in Lake county and say something along the lines of:
“You don’t have to charge these kids with a murder NONE OF THEM DID. You know they did not kill anyone. You know their 14-year-old friend and cousin was killed by the homeowner with the gun. That is punishment enough for the rest of their lives. Do not use your power in this way.
This is an unjust law and it is being applied unjustly.”
Call States Attorney Michael Nerheim at:
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Produced by Willis Polk II
Additional production by Christian “Idrys” Shannon
Additional Instrumentation by Christian “Idrys” Shannon, Lance “Lance Fury” Powlis & Markeith Black
Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library
Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush & Jason Coffey
Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg
Contains elements from:
“The Prodigal” by Justme