Radley Balko has a post that reads as follows:
The NY Times has a good overview of the felony murder doctrine, using the following case as its jumping off point:
Early in the morning of March 10, 2003, after a raucous party that lasted into the small hours, a groggy and hungover 20-year-old named Ryan Holle lent his Chevrolet Metro to a friend. That decision, prosecutors later said, was tantamount to murder.
The friend used the car to drive three men to the Pensacola home of a marijuana dealer, aiming to steal a safe. The burglary turned violent, and one of the men killed the dealer’s 18-year-old daughter by beating her head in with a shotgun he found in the home.
Mr. Holle was a mile and a half away, but that did not matter.
I’ve never liked the felony murder charge or, for that matter, any crime that doesn’t require the state to prove intent. It’s just too easy for prosecutors to stretch the doctrine to absurd lengths too quickly. Maybe this guy should have been more careful who he lent his car to. Maybe he shouldn’t have drank so much. Maybe he shouldn’t have been partying with such shady characters. But life in prison? Come on.
Just like the last time our libertarian friends attacked the felony murder rule, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Balko’s post makes it sound like this fellow simply lent his car to some people, without any idea that they were going to go commit a burglary or hurt anyone.
But when you read the article linked in Balko’s post, you learn that not only had Holle “given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary” before lending the burglars the car, but he also “did testify that he had been told it might be necessary to ‘knock out’ Jessica Snyder.”
Instead of merely knocking her out, the burglars knocked her dead. This sounds like it was foreseeable to Mr. Holle, who knew the burglars were contemplating a burglary with possible violence involved.
Holle now claims he thought the burglars were joking when they talked about the burglary they were going to commit. But a jury convicted Mr. Holle, meaning they didn’t believe that. I’m viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the prosecution’s position, just as an appellate court will. The jury’s verdict necessarily means they believed Holle knew about the planned burglary in advance.
In other words, Mr. Holle didn’t just lend his car to some buddies. He lent his car to some people who said they were going to use it to drive to do a burglary, during the course of which they might “knock out” the victim.
Rational people can debate whether this defendant should be serving life in prison for his actions. But there’s plenty more to this story than the casual reader can discern from Balko’s post. Contrary to the implication of his post, the jury found that this is not a simple story of someone innocently lending friends his car.
I’ll say this for Balko, though; he has opened his site up to comments, so that I was able to register the above complaint on his site (or will be able to, when my comment is approved). That’s a good thing.
UPDATE: Balko updates his post and says (among other things):
A few people have made the point that I should have included in the excerpt the fact that the guy initially told police the men who borrowed his car were about to commit a robbery and may have to “knock” someone “out” in the process. They have a point. I should have, if only to help you come to your own better informed decision.
It didn’t affect my opposition to the charge, though, because the guy also said he was drunk, and thought his friends were joking. So his crime here seems to have been an error in judgment. Or maybe an error in judgment affected by drinking too much.
Or, just maybe, he’s a criminal who’s telling a self-serving story after his conviction.
The scenario painted in the above quote, if believed by a jury, would have garnered Mr. Holle an acquittal. Either it wasn’t presented to a jury — or it was, and they didn’t believe it.
12 people concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that Holle specifically intended to aid and abet a burglary — one which explicitly contemplated violence. While juries get things wrong from time to time, their judgments should be accorded respect — in the absence of a specific reason to question them. No such reason is apparent from the NYT article.
Balko simply accepts the word of a convict as sufficient to negate facts found by 12 citizens beyond a reasonable doubt.
If all it takes is a convict’s uncorroborated word to prove that a jury got it wrong, then we might as well unlock the prisons, because almost any prisoner is willing to spin a tale that flies in the face of the facts found by his jury.