When You Didn’t Pull the Trigger, Can It Still Be Called Murder?

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Photo by DPP Law via Flickr

Should accomplices to a murder face the same charges as the perpetrator?

Florida State Sen. Randolph Bracy, who filed a bill in this year’s legislative session to change his state’s sentencing guidelines for felony murder— which currently make no distinction between the two—believes it’s unfair.

His bill, which would limit the felony murder charge only to “accomplices who helped commit or plan” a slaying, and would allow those imprisoned under the old law to petition for resentencing, died in committee.

randolph bracy

Sen. Randolph Bracy

But Bracy, a Democrat, says he’s not deterred. He predicts the bill will have a better chance at passing in the next session.

“I think there’s momentum for a number of reforms,” he recently told the Orlando Sentinel. “Now more than any time is the best time to pass a bill like this.”

Bracy is joining a growing movement across the country to amend or abolish altogether the felony murder rule, which can result in a life sentence for individuals who did not directly cause a homicide.

California’s legislation to reform its felony murder guidelines, passed in 2018, now serves as a model for “reform-minded lawmakers across the country,” according to The Intercept.

Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan have abolished the rule.  Pennsylvania and Illinois have similar bills under consideration.

Other countries, such as India, Canada and the U.K., have scrapped felony murder. The U.S. is the only country where the rule is still applied.

Supporters of the reform argue that it is a fundamental step in restoring equity in the U.S. justice system.

“At its core our legal system is predicated on fairness and justice,” says Carrie Boyd, Florida policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This law reeks of injustice.”

Statistics suggest that using the blunt instrument of a felony murder charge against individuals whose only connection with the crime is the fact that they were present when it happened has disproportionately impacted juveniles, people of color and women.

Nationally, an estimated 20 percent of individuals convicted of first-degree murder were sent to prison under felony murder provisions.

After passage of the California bill, roughly 800 people incarcerated for first-degree felony murder became eligible for relief, according to Re:Store Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

One of the first to be released under the new California law was Adnan Khan.

Khan was freed from prison in August 2019, where he had spent nearly half his life for his role in the robbery-death of a marijuana dealer.

Adnan Khan

Adnan Khan. Photo by Hope McKenney/KQED)

“Sixteen years ago, I participated in and committed a robbery. And I was absolutely wrong for that,” Khan said. “Unfortunately, the man that I was with stabbed and killed the young man. And my intentions were not to kill anyone.”

Khan who founded Re:Store Justice to advocate for incarcerated individuals, said he still takes responsibility for his part in the crime. But he argues that he was victimized by a “tough on crime” approach that stigmatized everyone involved in the justice system.

“A lot of laws went into effect from telling the other side of the story: the dangers, the monsters, the criminals, that you can’t trust them,” said. “And I know that’s not true for many of the men and even formerly incarcerated women I’ve met.”

Critics Call It a Deterrent

But critics argue that removing all accomplices from the threat of a felony murder charge would remove an important deterrent to crime.

“You have to expect that if you go to a robbery and put a gun in someone’s face, you have to realize you are responsible for that killing even if you didn’t pull the trigger,” says Orange County (Florida) Sheriff John Mina.

Fiscal arguments have also been used by opponents of the reform. Ending the felony murder rule “could cost millions of dollars to process resentencing petitions, as well as to transport people to and from courts for resentencing,” The Marshall Project has reported.

The issue came home to Lisa Antonini in 2006 when sheriff’s deputies in Florida’s Seminole County knocked on the door and arrested her 18-year-old son, Brian Harvey.

A Drug Robbery Turns Fatal

Harvey was facing a first-degree murder charge for his part in the death of his high school classmate Mitch Weiner, who was shot and killed by someone in the car Harvey was riding in.

Harvey was with a group of friends on their way to score some marijuana when one of them pulled out a gun and killed Weiner in a robbery attempt, according to the Orlando Sentinel’s account of the case. Harvey did not kill Weiner, but he was in the car and therefore, according to police, was equally guilty of the murder.

However, Antonini insisted that her son should not pay the price for a murder he didn’t commit.

“Yes, there was a crime committed,” she said. “Did he deserve life in prison? No, he set up a drug deal.”

Sen. Bracy agrees.

“I think it’s a gross injustice to charge someone with a crime they didn’t do.”

A petition launched  to abolish the felony murder rule nationwide has gained more than 8,500 signatures.

Noting that the rule has been abolished in the United Kingdom, where it originated, the petition argued that it violated essential principles of fairness.

“Imagine for a moment one of your children, decides to take a ride with some kids,” the petition said. “ONE of them does something stupid and now your child is facing the rest of his life in prison.”

Tayler Green is a TCR reporting intern

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