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Abolish felony murder in Maryland

Abolish felony murder in Maryland
These May 2018 photos provided by the Baltimore County Police and Fire Department shows, from left, Darrell Jaymar Ward, Eugene Robert Genius, Derrick Eugene Matthews and Dawnta Anthony Harris. (AP)

On Wednesday, Eugene Genius, Darrell Ward and Derrick Matthews each entered guilty pleas to felony murder in the death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio. The teens likely entered guilty pleas because the stakes at trial were so high.

In Maryland, felony murder is treated identically to premeditated first degree murder for the purposes of sentencing and carries a mandatory life sentence. Because Maryland’s parole system is fundamentally broken with respect to those serving life, a life sentence would have carried a very high probability that each of the teens would have died in prison. By entering a plea, the teens have allowed themselves an opportunity for life beyond bars one day: suspended life sentences and up to 30 years in prison.

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Under the felony murder doctrine, the state needed only to prove that each of the three was engaged in a felony, in this case a robbery, when Officer Caprio was killed by a fourth defendant, who ran into her with a vehicle. Unlike traditional first degree murder cases, the state did not have to prove that the three teens had any intent to commit a murder. Indeed, had the state had to meet that burden it likely would have been an uphill battle.

None of the three teens were actually in the Jeep when their co-defendant Dawnta Harris drove into Officer Caprio. Yet because the felony murder rule rests on the doctrine of foreseeability, the state is able to bypass intent altogether. The thinking is that if you are going to engage in a dangerous felony, you should be able to foresee that someone may die as a result. In other words, if you’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar.

I’ve sat in our prisons with many clients convicted of felony murder who accept responsibility for the role they have played in a crime and express deep remorse for the loss of life that occurred but also struggle to understand how they have been sentenced to life for a murder they did not plan or actually commit. In my experience, when individuals commit felonies, they typically aren’t engaging in the type of rational thought that lends itself to foreseeability.

The rule is particularly unworkable as applied to juveniles like Mr. Ward and Mr. Matthews. The Supreme Court recognized in a series of recent cases that juvenile brain development lags behind that of an adult. As a result, children are less able to measure risk and foresee the consequences of their actions. Recognizing those limitations, it’s difficult to justify applying a rule that is based on foreseeability to minors where the penalty is a life sentence and may in fact be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Thankfully, states around the country are beginning to recognize the problems with felony murder and do away with it. The latest state to do so was California, a move that was supported in part by data showing that the rule disproportionately affects women and young men of color. To be clear, the push to abolish felony murder is not underway only in states that have progressive criminal justice reform agendas. In fact, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan — states not known for their leniency — have already abolished the law.

The exact number of prisoners serving life sentences for felony murder in Maryland is not easily determined because it is not always tracked separately from other first degree murder convictions. But it’s safe to say there are hundreds of men and women sitting in our prisons today serving life sentences that do not reflect their actual culpability. This is an affront to the bedrock principal of proportionality in our justice system and on a practical level, a waste of tax payer money and human capital. It’s time for Maryland to join other states and abolish the felony murder rule. Eugene Genius, Darrell Ward and Derrick Matthews should be punished for the crimes they have committed, not for a murder that they did not.

Lila Meadows is an attorney with the University of Maryland Clinical Law Program. Her email is lmeadows@law.umaryland.edu.

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