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.