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Be Careful Who You Lend Your Car To

Adam Liptak has an excellent piece in today's New York Times discussing the felony murder rule, under which (as devotees of Law and Order are well aware) accomplices to felonies can be tried for murder for deaths occuring during the course of the crime. Liptak tells the story of Ryan Holle, who drunkenly lent his car to his housemate and some friends, who committed murder while attempting to rob a drug dealer. As for Holle,

He was convicted of murder under a distinctively American legal doctrine that makes accomplices as liable as the actual killer for murders committed during felonies like burglaries, rapes and robberies.

Mr. Holle, who had given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary, was convicted of first-degree murder. He is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole at the Wakulla Correctional Institution here, 20 miles southwest of Tallahassee.

The piece seems intended to convey the message that the felony murder rule is archaic and unfair (Liptak notes that some states have abolished it entirely, for that reason). My reaction, though, without knowing anything about the facts of the case beyond what's in Liptak's piece, isn't that the law needs to be changed, but that it probably shouldn't have applied in this instance. In general, holding accomplices equally culpable for crimes (including felony murders) isn't too problematic. Holle's life sentence strikes me as unjust not because he wasn't physically present at the crime scene, but because it doesn't appear (again, from the article) that he was really an accomplice, under any reasonable definition of the word. He was just lending his car to a housemate, as he had done before, and didn't have much reason to believe that a felony was going to be committed. But the prosecutor here doesn't sound like the sympathetic type:

Witnesses described the horror of the crime. Christine Snyder, for instance, recalled finding her daughter, her head bashed in and her teeth knocked out.

“Then what did you do?” the prosecutor asked her.

“I went screaming out of the home saying they blew my baby’s face off,” Ms. Snyder said.

The safe had belonged to Christine Snyder. The police found a pound of marijuana in it, and, after her daughter’s funeral, she was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing it.

--Josh Patashnik