Florida legislators acknowledge a need for change

The Florida Times Union published an article today describing the sentiments of some of its state legislators with regard to the 10-20-life statutes. Some of you may have become familiar with these laws because of Marissa Alexander’s case. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey sought this punishment for Marissa after she fired what has been described as a “warning shot” into the wall of the family home. Marissa claimed she did so in self-defense. She was charged with three counts of aggravated assault (with a deadly weapon), convicted, and sentenced to the mandatory penalty of 20 years because she had been charged with domestic battery four months before the incident.

The penalty has been a major point of contention across the state, emphasizing some very problematic aspects of Florida legislation. Marissa’s case is just one example of how these statutes are used, however.  Another case has received far less attention, but is perhaps one of the most unjust applications of the law in recent times.

Ronald Thompson is 65 years old. He served his country for 14 years as an Army veteran. He has many chronic health conditions, including diabetes, vision problems, and heart disease. He was charged with four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2009 after having fired his gun into the ground to scare off teenagers who were involved in a heated argument with Thompson’s grandmother. He did not injure anyone. It does not appear he was intending to injure anyone. However, the jury convicted him of all counts and he was sentenced to the mandatory penalty of 20 years in prison.

Thompson will die in prison as a result of this if nothing changes – a man who served America for well over a decade.

Guess who we have to thank for the charges? Florida State Attorney Angela Corey. Again. If you ask her why she is doing this to people she will probably say it is because she has a duty to follow the law. Indeed, she does. However, she also has discretion when it comes to when and how she charges people. We have seen this with her handling of Marissa Alexander’s case and the case of 13 year old Cristian Fernandez, who was 12 when charged with felony murder which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

All of this brings me to the point of this article, which is that Florida state legislators recognize the state has unjust legislation. The Florida Times Union polled 14 of the legislators and determined that 11 expressed a willingness to “re-examine the laws for ways to improve them”.

So when will they get around to doing this? Representative Audrey Gibson went so far as to say that failure to re-examine these harmful laws is a “dereliction of duty.” She criticized the task force’s activity (or lack thereof) with regard to the now infamous Stand your Ground legislation.

Representative Mia Jones stated she was against mandatory minimums across the board. This tells me there are representatives who know the legislation is immoral and unethical, but have not yet taken action to change it.

It means they will be amenable to changing or repealing the felony murder rule as well.

Since there is no apparent action to change these laws as of yet, this means we must demand the changes before the laws claim more casualties. You can begin by requesting the elimination of the felony murder rule in Florida. You don’t need to live in Florida to sign the petition either.

You may also write to the Florida state representatives and demand action. Enough is enough. They say they know that change is needed. They say they are willing to re-examine bad law.

Tell them that words are not enough. Words are nothing without action.

Contact Florida’s House Speaker, Dean Cannon, here:

Email him by clicking here.

The Honorable Dean Cannon, Speaker
Florida House of Representatives
420 The Capitol
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

Tell representatives Audrey Gibson and Mia Jones to take action to end these unjust laws once and for all.

Email Audrey Gibson: gibson.audrey.web@flsenate.gov

Email Mia Jones by clicking here.

More information on contacting representatives is here.

It only takes a couple of minutes to speak your mind and make a difference. Please do it and encourage others to do the same.

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.

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