State Supreme Courts May Abolish Life Without Parole For ‘Felony Murder’

State Court Report, 06/18/24: “In 1983, California Chief Justice Rose Bird had harsh words for the so-called “felony murder rule,” a relic of English common law that allows people to be convicted of murder and face the most severe punishments even when there was no intent to kill. The concept is “barbaric,” “outdated,” and “unwise,” she wrote, and unfairly “erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability.”

The California high court was deciding the fate of a 17-year-old high school student who had challenged his life-without-parole sentence. A few years earlier, the boy and some friends had set out to steal marijuana from nearby farmland. But when the farmer approached and shotgun blasts rang out, the boy panicked. Thinking the farmer “was getting ready to shoot me,” the boy shot wildly in the farmer’s direction, killing him. The boy was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to die in prison.

In the 40 years since, the felony murder rule, long-ago abolished in England but still alive in 48 states, has persisted as one of American criminal law’s cruelest features. Shattering norms of criminal liability, felony murder severely punishes people for deaths that they neither caused nor intended to cause, but that in some way flowed from their actions, with the connection often tenuous to the point of nonexistent.

In the California case, People v. Dillon, the person charged with murder had at least pulled the trigger. But the rule has grown far more expansive. A recent Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker article, for example, tells the story of a man who was miles away and handcuffed when his accomplice in some car burglaries accidentally struck and killed two cyclists as he fled from police. Yet the handcuffed man was convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole. His obvious and undisputed distance from the killings — both geographically and with regard to his intent — reduced neither his charges nor, given its mandatory nature, his sentence.

In Dillon, the California Supreme Court did not dismantle felony murder or announce a general rule to limit its reach. But it did find that given the boy’s age, lack of intent to kill, and other factors, a life-without-parole sentence violated the state constitution’s ban on ‘cruel or unusual punishments.’ A ‘punishment may violate the California constitution,’ the court said, if it ‘is grossly disproportionate to the defendant’s individual culpability as shown by . . . his age, prior criminality, personal characteristics, and state of mind.’ The case stands as an example of how state supreme courts, frustrated by an unjust felony murder rule that dispenses with the usual intent requirements of criminal law, can use state constitutional rights to mitigate its impact on a case-by-case basis.

But state courts can and should go further. They can do what the U.S. Supreme Court has failed to and recognize that imposing the harshest penalties under a “barbaric” felony murder theory is inherently excessive and unconstitutional. Indeed, imposing limits on felony murder is the logical next step in the growing trend of state courts expanding rights against excessive sentencing, particularly for people where evidence shows low culpability. Right now, there are three pending cases that present this issue, with state supreme courts in Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania poised to make pivotal rulings. The outcome of these cases could impact thousands of people — Michigan and Pennsylvania in particular have among the nation’s largest populations of people serving life without parole, including more than 1,000 people each for felony murder convictions.”

Read the full article here.