Ryan’s words

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Below I am posting the second guest blog, written by Ryan Holle, that gives a little insight into the basics of prison life.

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Thinking about what next to write about is not easy. Being raised by my mom, having my grandparents and other relatives around me, the one thing that they taught me – especially my mom – is what it means to be independent. Can you imagine a woman practically raising two children by herself and trying not to be dependent on others? She did awesome and I will always be grateful for her and my family in my life.

When I graduated high school, I left home at 17 and began my independence. I maintained that and prided myself on the fact that I was able to do so. When I got locked up I lost that. In prison there are no paying jobs – not to any great extent in Florida anyway. At the prison I was last at, on a compound of over 1,200 people, there were a handful of paying jobs. If you were lucky enough to be one of the five canteen operators or the one staff barber then you were able to make something. If you don’t have anyone out on the street to help you, you are out of luck.

Some people steal to make it by. Some tattoo, some deal in drugs, etc. That is just the nature of prison. In prison they give you three pairs of blues (that’s your uniform), three shirts, three boxers, three socks, two towels, two wash clothes, and a pair of what everyone nicknames “Bo-Bo’s”. They are the flat bottom slip-ons with elastic on both sides. Besides that, they give you two rolls of toilet paper a week, one bar of soap, one toothbrush, and one toothpaste once a month. Everything else in on you. If you want shampoo, deoderant, shower slides, toenail clippers, food items, shoes, etc. – then it is on you to find a way to purchase them.

A lot of people out there would say, “He doesn’t need to buy food items because they give him three meals a day”. But anyone familiar with prison food would find that statement very untrue. Being an independent person and calling home and asking for help is never easy. I am always grateful for the help I do get because like I tell my family, “You help me survive.”

Ryan Holle

In Ryan’s words

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

This is the first guest blog I have hosted on here and I am really excited about it. I recently wrote about some of the people who have been sacrificing some of the last bit of privacy they have retained while incarcerated so that they can share their experiences with others. I feel that if more people did this it would be hard to ignore the problems that plague our justice system – mainly because it would become apparent that those who have suffered various forms of injustice are people, just like those reading the blogs that they write. Some have been wrongfully convicted, some have been overcharged, and some are guilty of their crimes but remorseful.

I approached Ryan Holle about writing a blog post. I have written about Ryan’s case a few times – most recently here. Also I maintain a website for his case here. I wasn’t sure if he would be interested or not, but I hoped that he would. That said, the following was written by Ryan:

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You know when I was asked to write for this blog my mind went a little scatterbrain. I mean seriously, I’m sitting in a 8′ by 12″ cell on a mat that is like 3″ thick and a light that is just enough to write with. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do the whole “woe is me” stuff. That train of thought will get you absolutely nowhere. Of course I never thought I would spend my 30th birthday and almost 10 years incarcerated either. I have hope though and that is what keeps me going.

You know it’s sad and hopefully it doesn’t make me sound crazy but even though I’m here I’m just thankful to be alive. I made a lot of poor decisions before I was incarcerated. It’s amazing how you can become so wrapped up in just what matters to you that you don’t see how your actions affect those that care for you. How can you adequately describe what it feels like to lose everything including your freedom?

If you have never been incarcerated then I pray that you never do. I could sit here and tell you everything that you have to go through but I’m not because that would just be a biased opinion from my perspective. I can tell you that it has been a crazy journey. On the day I was convicted a deputy who was escorting me back to the county jail after I just got a natural life sentence asked me if he could share some advice with me. As an inmate, trust me there are very few guards/police that care at all. He told me, “Don’t become an animal.” I have taken that to heart. I refuse to let prison dictate the person that I am.

I have learned a lot from being and try to be someone my family can be proud of. I really believe that you can do that even from in here. I have never been a writer besides in letters to family and friends. So, I hope you will excuse my poor penmanship. If there is one thing I could say it’s, “Be thankful for your freedom and cherish it.”

People tell me a lot that they can’t believe that I have been incarcerated for nearly 10 years and have an upbeat attitude. They are surprised that I smile a lot. In my mind this is just a part of the journey that is my life and I believe with all my heart that one day I will be free!!

The first page of Ryan Holle's guest blog.

Page one

Page two

Page two

What will it take to free Ryan Holle?

Ryan with his parents during a June visit

Ryan with his parents during a June visit

Ryan Holle was convicted of felony murder in 2004. He did not participate in the murder or the burglary that precipitated it, but because he loaned his car to a roommate and it was used by those who perpetrated the crime, Ryan experienced the same consequence as those directly involved: life without any possibility of parole.

I have told Ryan’s story previously, but it is one I am particularly compelled to repeat because of the gross injustice this man has experienced. When I first learned about Ryan’s predicament I had a hard time believing it. I kept thinking there had to be something about his story I was missing. I first thought that perhaps he had a prior criminal history that prompted the prosecutor to come down harder on him. Upon learning this was not true I felt I should reach out to Ryan to learn about him as a person and try to understand the extreme sentence he was given.

Ryan was convicted under the Felony Murder Rule. This law exists in the majority of states in some capacity. Typically, states like Florida use this rule to hold anyone deemed as a participant in a crime equally culpable. The name of this law reflects the fact that it may be applied when a death occurs during the commission of a homicide. The sentencing is as severe as if the person committed first degree murder, even in cases where the resulting death was an unintended consequence of the felony component of the crime.

Some claim this rule is fair and is intended to act as a deterrent, but the truth is it does not deter crime because many people have no idea what felony murder is or how it works.

Just this month, five teenagers in Indiana allegedly broke into a home during the evening hours. The homeowner, upon hearing the commotion, grabbed his gun. He fired many shots, killing one of the intruders and wounding 16 year-old Blake Layman. As shots rang into the air, the teenagers scrambled to escape. One was so frightened by the man and his gun he jumped through a window to get away.

All of the surviving teenagers are being charged with felony murder. The prosecutor, Curtis Hill, is justifying this charge (which exposes these teens to life without parole sentences per the state’s statutes) by claiming he needs to use this case as an example. He is doing this as though the loss of one young man’s life is not a salient enough wake up call.

That is not to say there should be no additional consequence at all. Blake Laymon has no prior record. He made a very poor decision when he accompanied the group to the home, but should he receive a life without parole sentence because the homeowner shot and killed a member of the group? Absolutely not.

The prosecutor in the above case has the ability to charge the teenagers appropriately – without seeking an egregious sentence that will not deter future crime (it hasn’t so far in the many states this rule is applied in). Whatever happened to charging people with the crime they actually committed? I hear they do this in some countries, but it is a concept that is completely foreign to me since I live in the United States.

Three states have deemed the felony murder rule completely unconstitutional. Some may support the above prosecutor’s decision, but people who have teenagers or care about the welfare of teenagers in general, are going to find this decision hard to comprehend. It also sets a dangerous precedent for prosecutors throughout Indiana, and in states where this kind of charge is allowed.

Ryan as a child, with his family

Ryan as a child, with his family

But back to Ryan.

I spoke to Ryan about sharing his story in more detail with others and he said that was something he wanted to do. He began by explaining the Felony Murder Rule and how it works in Florida. He then said, “In my case, I was sleeping after a house party, hungover…I overheard talking about going over to Jessica’s house (the victim) and talk about robbing her. They were laughing, but at the same time they talked about getting food. I never took it serious because the guy living with me at the time, William Allen, dated her on and off.” The discussion about getting food threw him off as well.

Believing his roommate was not serious about stealing from Jessica, and only intended to use the car  to get food, Ryan gave him his car keys. He had loaned his car to the roommate without incident in the past and so he did not have any reason to believe this time would be different.

“Due to the fact that I heard that conversation and gave the keys to my car, under the Felony Murder Rule, I am just as guilty as the guy who committed the murder.” He added that the night before Jessica had been at his house.

I asked Ryan what his reaction was to being arrested and charged with felony murder. “I was stunned,” he answered. “From the start I cooperated with investigators and told them all I knew, not knowing that they were treating me as a suspect. I wasn’t even arrested for almost a month after the crime happened. It was literally out of the blue that I was being arrested”.

He then talked about the method the investigators used to arrest him. “On the day I was arrested, I got a phone call telling me that my car (which was driven by the four men to commit the crime) was ready to be picked up from the county impound. When I got there the investigator, Jimmy Sanderson, told me that he wanted to talk to me for a minute”.

The investigator took him to an  interrogation room and asked Ryan to sit down. The investigator also sat down and then another detective came into the room. He said, “We think you had something more to do with it…we are arresting you on an open count of murder”.

Ryan said he never believed that it would all lead to him being convicted and sentenced to life without parole. “I’ve been incarcerated for almost ten years,” he said to me. “I’m 29 years old and have a life sentence, without the possibility of parole”.

On November 17, Ryan will turn 30 in prison. Nearly a decade of his life will have passed in that environment.

Before his arrest in 2003

Before his arrest (which happened in 2003)

I asked Ryan about his life at the time all of this took place. I was curious about what was happening when his life was suddenly and irreparably interrupted by these events, and the fateful decision that he made while he was still intoxicated from the house party earlier in the evening.

“My life at the time was to be honest, chaotic.” He added, “I had recently lost my job as a delivery driver for an egg company due to the fact I suffered some muscle damage around my right eye in a car accident.” He explained that he was renting a place with a couple of his friends and his sister.

“I had recently split with a long-time girlfriend who helped me in more areas than I realized. I was actually trying to attend college,” he said. “I wanted to go back to school to become a software engineer. I’ve always been a fan of video games and I wanted to be a part of that industry.”

I wanted to know what Ryan’s first year in prison was like. He said that it was “like all my years…hard. There is no feeling like having freedom taken away from you. I’ve always been able to provide for myself, but when you’re incarcerated you have to rely on others. Granted, I would rather have someone to rely on than no one at all.”

“Imagine being 20 years old,” he said, “and being thrust into an environment where not only are you oppressed by guards, but surrounded by people that don’t care anything about you.”

He said that experience forced him to grow up quickly. “I could sit here and curse, mope, and moan about my situation. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m here.” Since I first began writing to Ryan he informed me, repeatedly, that he has a strong desire to find ways to better himself – even though he is in prison and his options are limited. He has said this to me in light of the fact that his sentence prohibits his eventual release.

“I can still grow as a person even in this environment,” he explained to me. “I used to be real self-centered in a lot of ways until my first visit in prison where my mom and stepfather told me how my attitude had effected not only them, but my friends and family. That hit me hard. I want to be someone that my family can be proud of, even if I’m here.”

Ryan as a child

Ryan as a child

Whoever Ryan used to be many years ago, he is a different person now. He is funny – with a sense of humor that has probably helped him cope during some of the harder times in prison. He is intelligent and thoughtful as well. We have discussed everything from movies to the problems with the justice system as we perceive them.

Ryan describes himself as an easy-going person “who likes to smile and make others smile.” He says that he is also passionate about his family.

“My views of the justice system have changed,” he informed me. “It’s real easy to believe in it when you have never been a part of it.” Ryan’s arrest and subsequent conviction was a wake up call to him of the worse kind.

I can relate to this because if someone had asked me when I was 20 years-old if the justice system was fair I would have answered that it was. I had no real concept of wrongful convictions or excessive sentencing practices. My views have changed dramatically as well.

Ryan recounted something that happened just before his trial that could have changed his fate. “Prior to the trial I was offered a plea deal of second degree murder and ten years. My lawyer told me not to take it because there was no way I would be convicted. The state attorney offered me that plea deal because he stated that he didn’t believe I was as culpable as my co-defendants. Yet under the Felony Murder Rule I got natural life”. This has weighed heavily on Ryan. “In hindsight, should I have taken the plea deal considering the severity of the felony murder rule? Absolutely. I actually would have gone home last October if I would have.”

An additional challenge for Ryan has been learning to understand the courts and justice system. “As a pro-se litigant I have had to learn how to research and do my own motions to the courts. The courts give deadlines on filing certain motions. What it takes a lawyer 8-plus years to learn, an inmate has to learn in less than two. I am currently in the federal courts yet my Federal Habeas Corpus petition may not be heard because my appellate counsel advised me about the deadline and he was mistaken. Due to that fact my petition may never be heard. Even though I have a legitimate claim”.

Ryan is keeping himself busy by seeking educational opportunities within the prison. Recently he passed a test that has allowed him to become involved in a vocational training program. He started the program this week.

The sad part is that Ryan’s case is one of too many. In 2010, Charles Grodin wrote a letter to the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He has spoken out about the Felony Murder Rule, citing Ryan’s case as an example of how it is unjust. In his letter, he wrote, “Last year I met with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the felony murder rule, which is felt by many to be the most heinous piece of legislation we have in America. Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, currently the President of the Governor’s Association is very supportive, as is Orrin Hatch”.

Grodin ended his letter by stating, “We represent five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. As Senator Webb recently said so eloquently, ‘We are either the most evil people on the earth, or there’s something wrong with our justice system.’ I don’t believe we’re the most evil people on earth,” he concluded.

Ryan’s case is a travesty of justice. This man does not belong in prison. He has much to offer society and he is willing to work hard and pave his own way. However, to get this kind of chance he’s at the mercy of those in a position of power who have the authority to help him. One of those people is the governor of Florida, Rick Scott. If Ryan’s situation has outraged you, or even seems unfair, please take a moment to let the governor know your thoughts by clicking here.

You may also take a moment to sign a petition started by Floridian John Hart. John learned of Ryan’s case and felt compelled to do something to try to help. Over 1,300 people have signed the petition on behalf of Ryan:

https://www.change.org/petitions/governor-rick-scott-state-of-florida-pardon-ryan-holle

The petition has given Ryan a renewed sense of hope in that he now knows there are people out there who see this injustice for what it is and feel he should be released.

Ryan is grateful for any help and support he can get. If you would like to write a letter of support to Ryan, please use the following address:

Ryan Holle 0-126321/B4-2130
Graceville Correctional Facility
5168 Ezell Road
Graceville, FL 32440

Learn more about Ryan’s case and others by visiting my site at ryanholle.com.

Why abolish the felony murder rule?

Cristian Fernandez and Curtis Shuler

Cristian Fernandez and Curtis Shuler

Some laws in this country sound really good on paper and make sense in theory. However, when a number of these laws are applied to real life situations they become incredibly unjust. The felony murder law is an example of such legislation.

In a previous post I outlined some of the people in America who have been negatively impacted by the felony murder rule as juveniles. To reiterate, this law gives prosecutors the ability to hold all parties involved in circumstances leading to a murder accountable to the fullest extent of the law. At first, this sounds reasonable enough. If two or more people commit a burglary and someone is murdered in the process both people must be held accountable right? Most would agree that makes sense.

What if you were 20 years old and you spent a night drinking and partying, only to be awaken by a roommate at some point, asking if they could borrow your car to go steal some weed from someone? Now imagine that you had loaned your car many times to the same person, you’re too hung over to really think about what they are saying, and you give permission for them to take the car again. You then go back to sleep.

Your roommate takes some friends and drives about a mile away to steal marijuana from a man who sells it. During the attempted robbery, the 18 year old daughter of the weed dealer is murdered. The men who committed the crime are apprehended and then the next thing you know you are being charged with felony murder.

You cannot imagine you will be convicted because you never had any idea a murder would occur and you had loaned your car to your roommate in the past without negative consequences. You figure that if you are guilty of anything it is of knowing that the roommates might steal some marijuana.

Regardless of this you are charged with the crimes associated with both the robbery and the murder. After all, it was your car they used to participate in the crime. No car, no crime, the prosecutor tells you. But what about the marijuana? If the dealer hadn’t kept weed in his house the crime wouldn’t have occurred either, right? That’s not how the prosecutor sees it though.

You do not believe you will be convicted of felony murder. It is equated with first degree murder in terms of sentencing and first degree murder involves malice and premeditation. You never intended for anyone to die because you never knew the murder would take place to begin with. You weren’t even there. Surely you will not be convicted and sentenced as if you had been there, and were as culpable as the person who committed the murder.

However, when presented with the information a jury finds that you were culpable in the robbery because you loaned your car to the person who committed it. The jury does not have to find you guilty of first degree murder because you are facing felony murder where your involvement in the robbery, no matter how minimal, makes you just as culpable as the person who murdered the 18 year old girl.

You are convicted and sentenced to life without parole. You now reside in a Florida prison, where you will remain for the rest of your life unless something significant happens to change your fate.

Which is unlikely.

The above sounds unrealistic, right? It sounds like something I made up. It isn’t though. The above is what happened to 20 year old Ryan Holle in 2003. He received a life without parole sentence for his role in a murder he never even knew would happen. The prosecutor could have taken him to court on a lesser charge, but he chose not to do it.

This is why the felony murder rule is dangerous. Prosecutors abuse this law. Juveniles and young adults across the country have experienced the consequences of this unjust legislation, ranging from Cristian Fernandez who was charged with felony murder at age 12 and will receive life without parole if convicted at trial to Curtis Shuler who was charged at 16. Curtis was sentenced to life without parole for a murder that the two other convicted perpetrators have since said he did not do. They both say he was not even there.

Those who support the felony murder rule say it acts as a deterrent. I disagree. In my effort to raise awareness about Cristian Fernandez’s case I have encountered countless people who have no understanding of how Florida’s mandatory minimums work. Many do not understand that if convicted, the judge will have no choice in Cristian’s case but to sentence him to life without parole. The felony murder rule in Florida requires a person to receive life in prison without parole or the death penalty. At 12, Cristian was too young to receive the death penalty.

How can a law act as a deterrent if people in this country do not even understand it or how it works? It simply can’t.

There are mechanisms in place to punish people for their role in a crime. The felony murder rule is completely unnecessary and provides prosecutors like Florida State Attorney Angela Corey with the legal ability to obtain life without parole sentences for children and teenagers.

It has to stop. Melissa Shuler is Curtis’s wife. She has been fighting tirelessly for her husband for a long time. We decided to join forces in working toward abolishing the felony murder rule, beginning in Florida where some of the more egregious injustices have occurred, and continue to occur, because of it.

We are asking for fair justice. Smart justice. The felony murder doctrine is neither.

Please join us in our effort. We will be campaigning in a variety of ways over time to end this unjust law and bring attention to its casualties.

Ways to Help:

Join us in our effort by signing the petition to end the felony murder law in Florida by clicking here.

You can join our event on facebook here.

Please share the petition with friends and other people who will help us raise awareness and express to Florida legislators that we would like to join states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Hawaii in eliminating this legislation.

Learn More:

This website outlines information about the legislation: http://felonymurder.org/

Watch the documentary “Reckless Indifference” to learn about Brandon Hein and how the felony murder rule affected several teenagers in California. Netflix offer this documentary in the streaming version as well as on DVD.

Watch “Unequal Justice” online here and learn about another example of how the felony murder rule has failed to produce appropriate justice.

The felony murder rule

Ryan Holle

Ryan Holle

In 2003, Ryan Holle was 20 years old. He had been partying the night before and was hungover and tired when a friend asked to borrow his car. Ryan handed his keys over in a decision that probably ranks as the one of the worst he ever made.

Ryan’s friend used the car to drive three other people to steal a safe from a marijuana dealer’s home in Pensacola, Florida. The burglary resulted in the murder of the dealer’s 18 year old daughter, Jessica Snyder.

At trial the prosecutor, David Rimmer, justified charging Ryan by saying he knew a burglary was going to occur. He made the statement that “no car equals no crime, no consequences, and no murder.” Ryan testified at trial, saying that there had been talk about a burglary but he had not taken it seriously. He was hungover from the night before and the discussion wasn’t registering.

Police statements appeared to indicate that Ryan  had knowledge the men intended to burglarize a home. This was what gave the prosecuting attorney ammunition to charge Ryan as an accomplice to the murder. Ryan had no criminal record. Lending his car to his housemate and friend was not an unusual practice for him either. He had done it previously a number of times. However, when the burglary of a home about a mile and a half away from Ryan’s location resulted in murder, Florida law made it possible to charge him as a direct participant.

Ryan stood trial and received the exact same sentence as the two men who witnessed Jessica’s murder, and the man who directly perpetrated it: life without parole.

Knowing a burglary might occur and anticipating a murder are two very different things from a common sense perspective, but they can be one in the same according to many states’ laws. The crime is referred to as felony murder and it comes in many forms.

Three states have abolished the felony murder rule, including Kentucky, Hawaii, and Michigan. Though the majority of states still have this law or a variation of it, some states implement a harsher application of the law than others. Florida is a prime example.

The felony murder rule has been examined by a number of programs and documentaries. Unequal Justice, which can be viewed online, describes Joseph Donovan’s case and his sentencing to life without parole. The most shocking component of this story is that the person who did the stabbing was released from prison, while the other continues to serve time. Unless something significant changes, he will remain there until he dies.

Joseph Donovan was 17 at the time the crime was committed. He was tried for murder because he started the fight that resulted in 15 year old Shon McHugh stabbing Yngve Raustein. 18 year old Alfredo Velez was also a participant. The victim’s friend, Arne Fredheim, witnessed the murder. Arne told the New England Cable News the following:

In my opinion, [Donovan] did participate in the incident that caused the murder, but he is not a murderer. I feel sorry for him. Being punished for life for something that you did as a 17 year old boy? To me, that’s not justice. That’s wrong.

Joseph Donovan

Joseph Donovan

Joseph was the only one of the three convicted of felony murder. This is why he remains in prison for a crime committed in 1992, while the other two participants are free. Shon was released after a 10 year sentence. Alfredo took a plea deal. Joseph was offered a plea deal for second degree murder also; however, when he asked his mother if he should take it she told him that if she were in his place and was not responsible for the murder of another person, she would not take the deal. She said that doing that was like admitting to doing something you did not do. Joseph accepted her advice and rejected the plea deal.

A documentary, Reckless Indifference, describes another situation case where the felony rule was applied to juveniles. Five teenagers, ranging from 15 to 18 years of age, were involved in a fistfight that resulted in the stabbing of 16 year old Jimmy Farris and 17 year old Michael McLoren. Michael survived his injuries, but Jimmy did not.

A summary from the 2001 California Court of Appeals indicates that one of the teenagers, Jason Holland, was carrying a knife. The summary states that there was no evidence indicating that the other teens knew he had a knife. Three of the teens involved in the event received life without parole. Micah Holland, who was 15, received 29 years to life. 17 year old Christopher Velardo pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, combined with conspiracy to commit robbery. In 2000, Christopher was released from prison. Brandon Hein, one of the teenagers involved, was interviewed in the above documentary.

The felony murder doctrine is the reason 13 year old Cristian Fernandez faces life without parole for a crime he was charged with at just 12 years of age. Jurors are not informed that those being tried in accordance with this law will receive life without parole. Instead, some jurors have later stated they thought the verdict would result in a lighter sentence.

Carolyn Butterworth was one of the jurors who deliberated on the jury for Joseph Donovan. She later stated, “People in our juror pool said ‘he’ll get out in a few years.'” She now realizes this was not true then and it still isn’t true since Joseph remains in prison.

Is this what will happen to Cristian? Will the jury find him guilty of aggravated battery, without realizing that the combination of the battery charge with murder makes it applicable under the felony murder rule? Do people realize that felony murder is treated like first degree murder but that a prosecutor does not need to prove the death was premeditated?

Some media outlets, like the Florida Times Union, do not seem to like to print that he faces the mandatory sentence of life without parole. Considering that their readership lives in the same city containing Cristian’s future jury pool I’d say that if he is convicted and given this egregious sentence it would be fair to say they played some role in it. Especially since they have been informed of this issue and they ignore it.

However, one of Cristian’s defense attorneys, Hank Coxe, has stated it outright. As have others.

How many times has the media played a role in someone’s overly harsh sentencing or wrongful conviction?

I guess that’s another blog article for another time.

More stories of people sentenced according to the felony murder rule may be found here.

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