Considering a Juvenile Exception to the Felony Murder Rule.

Author:Dobscha, Katherine

CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. FELONY MURDER DOCTRINE II. JUVENILES AS FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT FROM ADULTS A. Social Sciences' Recognition of Juveniles' Immaturity and Limited Capacity for Reasoned Decision-Making B. Juveniles and the Penological Purposes of the Felony Murder Rule C. Supreme Court Precedent Recognizing the Fundamental Differentness of Juveniles and Restricting Severe Juvenile Sentencing III. THE APPLICATION OF THE FELONY MURDER RULE TO JUVENILES AND THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT'S PROHIBITION ON CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS A. Objective Evidence that Evolving Standards of Decency Are Moving Courts Away from Applying the Felony Murder Rule to Juveniles B. Categorical Exclusions from Specific Crimes for Certain Classes of Defendants C. Excluding Juveniles from Punishment for Acts that Would Be Crimes if Committed by Adults D. Limiting and Reevaluating Sentencing Based on Age 1. Accounting for Youth in Juvenile Sentencing 2. Accounting for Old Age in Sentencing IV. A JUVENILE EXCEPTION FROM ADULT SENTENCING UNDER THE FELONY MURDER RULE CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

When Lakeith Smith was fifteen years old, he accompanied four of his friends to burglarize a home in Millbrook, Alabama. (1) Smith's friend and accomplice in the burglary, sixteen-year-old A'Donte Washington, engaged in a shootout with the police as the boys attempted to flee. (2) A police officer shot and killed Washington. (3) Smith did not have a gun and did not participate in the shootout; yet he was charged with felony murder on the principle that intentionally acting as an accomplice in the burglary implied an intent to kill his friend. (4) Smith turned down a plea deal for twenty-five years in prison, expecting a lesser sentence at the end of a jury trial because he did not have a gun, did not participate in the act that caused Washington's death, and did not intend to kill his friend. (5) Instead, the jury sentenced Smith to thirty years in prison for felony murder, fifteen years for burglary, and two ten-year sentences for theft. (6) The chief assistant district attorney expressed his pleasure with Smith's severe sentence: "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." (7) Andre Washington, the deceased teen's father, sat with Smith's mother as a symbol of his rejection of the felony murder rule's application to Smith (8): "I went there to show him and his family some support. What the officers did--it was totally wrong .... I don't feel [Smith] deserves that. No. Not at all." (9)

Smith was apparently unaware of the frequency with which juveniles in circumstances strikingly similar to his have been charged with and convicted of felony murder. (10) In 1992, fourteen-year-old Timothy Kane agreed to go along with a group of his friends to break in to a neighbor's house. (11) Kane hid in fear under the dining-room table as two of his friends killed the home's occupant. Kane received a life sentence for felony murder. (12) In 1995, Curtis Brooks, a homeless teenager, agreed to help a new acquaintance steal a car. (13) Brooks was given a gun and his only role was to serve as a distraction by firing the gun into the air. Brooks's acquaintance unexpectedly shot the victim, and Brooks subsequently received an automatic life sentence for felony murder. (14)

Juveniles are frequently charged with felony murder, as their immaturity makes them prone to engaging in dangerous crimes, like robbery, that carry with them a risk of death. (15) The doctrine's purposes and rationales are fundamentally inconsistent with juveniles' capacity for reasoned decision-making, thus assigning juveniles an inappropriate level of culpability. (16)

This Note advocates for the exclusion of juveniles from the felony murder rule in light of the fundamental "differentness" between juveniles and adults. The Supreme Court has recognized this differentness by categorically excluding juveniles from certain severe types of punishments and sentences--just as the Court has exempted other categories of offenders from the death sentence, such as the mentally disabled. (17) In light of the developing understanding of juveniles' culpability and behavior, and the acceptance that certain classes of citizens should be excluded from capital punishment, states have created "categorical" exceptions for juveniles in order to prevent excessive punishment. "Romeo and Juliet" laws, for instance, protect juveniles under many statutory rape and anti-child pornography laws that would otherwise, if violated by an adult, impose severe sentences. (18) Those laws are in line with the national standard of excluding juveniles from the most severe sentences by accounting for an adolescent's impulsive behavior, their inability to evaluate consequences, and their susceptibility to peer pressure. (19) That standard is further illustrated by states' sentences that account for the offender's age when deciding what punishment is appropriate. (20) The felony murder doctrine has been limited and reconsidered in many states, indicating a new willingness by courts and legislatures to re-evaluate the rule's reach. Despite these advances, the doctrine persists and, while it is potentially justified as applied to adults, it should not be applied to juveniles in the same way because it is fundamentally at odds with juveniles' culpability. Indeed, applying the doctrine to juveniles amounts to excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

Part I of this Note outlines the felony murder doctrine and its modern purposes and rationale. Part II explores juveniles' capacity for reasoned behavior in light of social science research and Supreme Court jurisprudence that recognize the fundamental differentness between adults and categorically less-culpable juveniles. Part III analyzes juvenile felony murder in both the cruel-and-unusual and excessive-or-disproportionate punishment contexts. It addresses the Supreme Court's willingness to categorically exclude the less culpable from certain sentences given states' reconsiderations of the felony murder doctrine and its application to juveniles. Part III also discusses state laws exempting juveniles from severe sentences imposed on adults for the same acts, as well as states' practices of limiting and reevaluating sentencing based on the perpetrator's age. Part IV discusses excluding juveniles from adult sentencing under the felony murder rule through a standard that uses life-expectancy predictions to limit the length of sentences courts may impose on juveniles.


    The felony murder rule varies in its details under different statutory schemes, but in its broadest form it provides that any killing is murder when occurs during the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a felony. (21) The felony murder rule transfers the intent to commit the underlying felony to the intent to commit the homicide, (22) satisfying the malice-aforethought requirement for murder. The intent to commit the underlying felony thus establishes an "implied malice" (23) and eliminates the prosecution's need to otherwise prove any intent to cause the resulting death, making it easier for the state to obtain convictions. (24) This transferred intent is the outlier compared to the other mental-state requirements for murder (including express intent to kill, intent to cause serious bodily harm, and extreme reckless murder) because it does not require any intent to cause a death. (25)

    Proponents of the felony murder rule argue that it is justified because it deters potential offenders from committing dangerous felonies out of fear of the severe punishment that would result should someone die during that felony's commission. (26) Consequently, the deterrent effect forces offenders to perpetrate potentially violent crimes more carefully or prevents offenders from engaging in violent crimes altogether. (27) The second main justification for the felony murder rule is retribution. A person convicted of felony murder, whether they were an accomplice to the murder or the perpetrator of it, intended to commit the underlying felony, which had the possibility of resulting in a death. (28) A reasonable person perpetrating a dangerous felony would predict that it might result in death. (29) Therefore, all perpetrators of the underlying felony are morally blameworthy for any resulting death. (30)

    These rationales presuppose that an offender has the capacity to foresee the potentially severe consequences of committing a felony, namely that someone may be killed in its commission. (31) Justice Breyer, recognizing that the rationale of the felony-murder doctrine is based on that assumption, stressed that "the ability to consider the full consequences of a course of action and to adjust one's conduct accordingly is precisely what we know juveniles lack capacity to do effectively." (32) Another retributive rationale is that the rule brings justice to the victims' families and creates a mechanism by which those who knowingly engage in violent and dangerous felonies are punished accordingly. (33) These purposes cannot be served by a rule that assumes reasoned decision-making because juveniles are generally incapable of precisely that type of decision-making. And so, attaching blame to inherently less culpable juveniles frustrates the rule's retributive purpose. (34)


    The felony murder rule allows the intent to kill to be inferred from the intent to commit an underlying felony. (35) The rule presumes that the offender can foresee the consequences of perpetuating a felony, even if they did not actually foresee a death or intend to kill anyone. (36) This presumption is fundamentally inconsistent with juveniles' behavior and lack of capacity for such reasoned decision-making. (37) As the Supreme Court has repeatedly observed, "juveniles cannot with reliability be...

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