Trevor Jones, 17, of Denver, fired a single shot – accidentally, he claims – that killed Matthew Foley, 16. The incident sent Jones to prison for life without parole and left jurors questioning a felony murder sentence they found too harsh – and at odds with their findings about the shooting, the Denver Post says in the second of a series. In Colorado, 60 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole since 1998 are in prison because of felony murder convictions. Fewer than one-fourth of adults serving life sentences for crimes during that same period are in prison on that charge. Colorado is one of only 14 states with a combination of three controversial laws: prosecutors’ direct-file discretion, which allows them to avoid the juvenile system and move directly to adult court in some crimes; the crime of felony murder, which can apply to anyone involved in certain crimes in which an innocent party dies; and life without parole for juveniles.
Laws that can hold several individuals responsible in homicide cases inordinately ensnare young offenders, says Laurence Steinberg of the Philadelphia-based MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. “It’s not only because of kids’ propensity to commit crimes in groups,” he says, “but also because of the developmental differences that make kids more susceptible to peer influence.” Andrew Heher, who represented Jones on appeal, calls felony murder a “legal fiction,” a murder charge predicated on an entirely different crime – in this case, robbery. Backers of felony murder prosecutions counter that a life- without-parole penalty can deter criminals. “It gives the message: If you’re going to be involved in criminal activity and death occurs, know upfront you’re going to be nailed,” says former prosecutor Al Dominguez.