The felony murder rule offers prosecutors in states like Florida and approximately 30 others the option to punish all actors in a crime as though their guilt is identical—the hand of one is the hand of all. But some cases, such as Florida’s prosecution of Ryan Holle, raise questions. Does the rule deliver justice or revenge? For a conservative to write those words is unusual—after all, aren’t we staunch advocates of law and order? Ironically, it is because I am a strong advocate of law and order that I am disturbed by Holle’s case.
No murder case is simple, but here’s what I know about the actions that resulted in Holle being sentenced to life for first degree murder:
•On March 10, 2003, after a night of heavy-duty partying, 20-year-old Holle lent his car to some friends who’d borrowed his car before. The friends drove to the home of a woman The New York Times described as a marijuana dealer. The men aimed to steal the woman’s safe. One of the men brutally beat the woman’s 18-year-old daughter to death during the burglary. The mother served time for possessing the marijuana.
•Holle slept through it all and was nowhere near the crime scene. The NYT said, “Mr. Holle…had given the police a series of statements in which he seemed to admit knowing about the burglary.” Holle did testify in court one man said they might have to ‘knock out’ the dealer’s daughter. He told the NYT he thought the men were joking.
•Holle had a clean record. He’d lent his car to his roommate many times.
Holle probably believed if something did happen, he had nothing to do with it. I’ve mentioned many times the felony murder rule should be taught in every classroom in America, because some who end up serving sentences like Holle’s have no idea the consequences of actions by their associates can cause one night to change your life in a very negative way.
Holle was offered a plea deal by the prosecutor. Holle turned the deal down, believing himself innocent.
The prosecutor boiled down a simple argument for the jury: “No car, no crime.” You have to admit there is no logic whatsoever in that statement. If someone is intent on committing a crime, most prosecutors would acknowledge the culprit will find a way to do so.
Holle’s mother Sylvia Garnett has actively sought relief for her son by working within the justice system. Garnett is not a wealthy woman, so her options are limited. She emails me from time to time with updates on her son’s case.
As a mother, I know that if someone harmed my child, I would demand an eye for an eye. The actors in the crime that took a young girl’s life all received the same sentence Holle received. But if we look at such cases through the lens of justice rather than revenge, we must admit to ourselves the young man who slept through the crime miles away does not have the same burden as those who stood to profit by their crime and who planned and implemented it.
The felony murder rule is an avenue for revenge. The rule is not applied uniformly by prosecutors. Both the U.S. Constitution and the state of Florida Constitution have provisions addressing excessive punishment. “Let the punishment fit the crime” is a well-worn maxim. In Holle’s case, I believe it doesn’t. Revenge undermines the justice system—it is often arbitrary and most often applies to those without substantial means to hire attorney dream teams.
The felony murder rule is useful for the state; there is no doubt about that. But for Holle to serve a life sentence at Wakulla Correctional Institute in Florida for a murder and burglary he was not a part of, for a crime he neither witnessed nor stood to profit by, is a situation that should concern anyone interested in justice. The Iowa Justice Project called Holle’s case the “worst use of the felony murder rule that I have ever seen.” Holle didn’t deal, though he did apparently cooperate with the police, and the system delivered revenge.