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How can someone be imprisoned for murder when they didn’t kill anyone?

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Mike Rampton
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How can someone be imprisoned for murder when they didn’t kill anyone?

The case of LaKeith Smith has hit the headlines when the 19-year-old was sentenced to 65 years for murder - despite not actually committing the act. Just how has this happened and what’s the real story?

The internet gets up in arms about all sorts of stuff. Sometimes it’s completely justified, and sometimes it turns out to all be a big fuss over pretty much nothing, and something has been taken out of context, or misinterpreted, or blown up out of all proportion.

One current thing the internet is upset about seems entirely worth being upset about - a young man, LaKeith Smith, has been imprisoned for 65 years for the murder of a friend of his, when someone else pulled the trigger

That’s a long sentence for any crime, but one where the fatal bullet was fired by someone else? Something there certainly feels, at the very least, a bit off. So what’s going on?

What exactly happened? 

Four years ago, five friends in Millbrook, Alabama (including a 15-year-old Smith) went on a burgling spree. The police were called by a neighbour who saw what was going on, and officers soon showed up. After the police officers caught the burglars by surprise, it turned into a shootout, and one of the robbers died. 16-year-old A’Donte Washington was shot in the neck by a Millbrook police officer. Smith was not holding a gun.

The other four were arrested and charged. Smith is the only one to plead not guilty, turning down a plea bargain of 25 years in prison, and as such was the only one to go to trial - the others accepted plea bargains and are awaiting sentencing. Smith, now 19, has been officially found guilty of felony murder, armed burglary, second-degree theft and third-degree theft, and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Hang on. How, if a policeman fired the shot, is Smith guilty of murdering his friend? 

Alabama has “accomplice liability law” - in fact, 43 out of 50 US states do. What this effectively does is make anyone involved in any element of a crime responsible for the whole thing and any and all consequences arising from it. The way the court sees it, if Smith and his friends hadn’t been robbing the place, Washington would still be alive, so they are directly and legally responsible for his death. Specifically, Smith has been found guilty of “felony murder”.

What is felony murder?

Felony murder expands the definition of murder to any killing, regardless of intent, that happens due to a crime being committed. Generally we think of murder as being a deliberate act, but felony murder widens that definition to include, for instance, a pedestrian run over by someone evading police in a car chase, or a mugging victim who has a fatal heart attack while being robbed.

It basically removes the idea of manslaughter if one is committing a crime - pretty much removing the idea of an accident and treating everything that happens as a result of the crime as though it was planned out and premeditated from the start. If you steal a vehicle and get into an accident in which someone is killed, like this case from New Mexico last year, you potentially stand to be tried as though you spent months planning a killing.

Alabama Code § 13A-6-2(a)(3) states that if when a person commits crimes and “in the course of and in furtherance of the crime” someone else is killed, then the perpetrator is guilty of murder.  Murder is a class A felony, the punishment of which is death or life imprisonment.

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Where does that passing along of responsibility end?

It can go a bit weird really, in a way that would be funny if it didn’t involve people being locked up for decades. 

In 2004, Ryan Holle was sentenced to life in prison for a murder committed while he was a mile and a half away, because he’d lent his car to the murderers. The murder was horrible and vicious, but Holle was nowhere near it. “No car, no crime,” said the prosecutor. By that logic, should whoever sold them the petrol be in trouble too? Shouldn’t every gun salesperson in the country be in prison?

Last year, a man was accused of felony murder for giving his wife the heroin she fatally overdosed on. That’s obviously a bad thing to do, but is it murder? In that particular case it ended up being reduced to “voluntary manslaughter”.

Does this happen a lot?

It really does. 

A lot of people are in prison for crimes committed by their accomplices during an attempted lesser crime - around a sixth of murders in the US take place during the committing of another felony. Fewer are in for the shooting by police of their own accomplices, but this is by no means a one-off. 

An investigation in Chicago found ten such examples over a five-year period in one county alone. This man in Atlanta has been charged with the murder of his accomplice, shot by the owner of a house they were burgling together. Same with this man. And this one.

It’s real insult-to-injury stuff - your friend is killed, so you’re sad, and then you’re imprisoned for their murder so have even more reason to be sad. This guy got 55 years for an incident he himself was shot in. In 1975, a robber was convicted of felony murder after a bystander attempting to stop him shot another bystander. In Los Angeles a man is currently charged with felony murder after police firing at him killed an innocent bystander.

Supporters of the felony murder rule say that it means criminals may plan their crimes with more care, choose to leave deadly weapons at home or even decide not to commit the underlying felony at all. The National Institute of Justice call bullshit on this. 

This case has received more media attention due to the sheer severity of the sentence - 65 years is a long time - as well as the fact that Smith was just 15 when the crime took place, so could have been tried as a minor had the state not decided to try him as an adult. It’s also really made it seem like going to trial, rather than accepting a plea bargain, is by no accounts worth it. 

“People should not be punished for using their right to a trial by jury” says the American Civil Liberties Union. “Smith exercised his right to a trial, and his lack of success should not lead to a longer sentence. Rather, the sentence should be in line with what was offered as a plea bargain and should be appropriate for the crime. A sentencing scheme that imposes a trial tax is contrary [to] fundamental fairness, due process, and an impartial justice system.”

Were the victim’s family pleased with the sentence?

The dead man’s father, Andre Washington, sat with Smith’s mother during the sentencing. “I went there to show him and his family some support” he told reporters. “What the officers did - it was totally wrong. I don’t feel [Smith] deserves [his sentence]. No. Not at all.”

How did Smith react to his sentencing?

Smith laughed during his sentencing, something the judge took as a sign of a lack of remorse but, if you put yourself in his shoes for a second, a lot of people would probably find themselves doing. Imprisoned until the age of 80 for killing your friend when you never touched the weapon? A lot of people would laugh at that, because it’s fucked up

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What happened to the policeman who fired the bullet? 

He wasn’t charged - the shooting (documented by the camera the officer himself was wearing) was found to be justified. So, even though there’s a murder charge, the only direct act of killing that took place was entirely lawful. His name was not made public knowledge. 

Are these laws ever likely to change?

“Felony-murder is a lovely American fiction,” Michael Heyman, professor emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, told the BBC. “It’s a fiction in that it attributes a killing to you that you need not have done by your own hand.” Heyman has written extensively on the subject

The American Civil Liberties Union say that this case “demonstrates the system’s brokenness“. Their concern is more the disproportionate sentences awaiting defendants who reject plea bargains than accomplice liability laws themselves. There are petitions to abolish those laws, but they’re not gathering much steam - anything along those lines would be a massive Supreme Court issue. It could happen though - Canada abolished their similar laws.

Could a case like this happen here?

Felony murder law has its roots in English common law, but it was abolished here some time ago. The closest thing now is the idea of “joint enterprise”, mainly used in sentencing for gang-related killings, but foresight and intention are essential for someone to be found guilty by it. 

What’s going to happen to Smith now?

According to Smith’s prosecutor, even the possibility of parole is a long way away. “I don’t think Mr. Smith will be smiling long when he gets to prison,” he told reporters. “Because the sentences are consecutive, it will be a long time before he comes up for even the possibility for parole, at least 20 to 25 years. We are very pleased with this sentence.” 

That last bit again: “We are very pleased with this sentence.”

(Pics: Getty, Pixabay)

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