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Felony murder rule case in Florida: revenge or justice?

Ryan Holle is serving a life sentence at Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville, Fla., after he lent his car to friends who committed burglary and murder.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.


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  • Source
    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.
  • Source

Reader Comments (11)

I just think this is so unfair and makes no sense while a man is given a life sentence when he had NOTHING to go with the crime itself. All he did was lend his car to a guy whom he trusted. So he is paying the ultimate price because he had a kind heart. I think it's just wrong and laws like this were not meant to put people like My Holle in jail for life.

May 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSam Eliastrom

Absolutely ridiculous. I say "no marijana, no murder". So why isn't the mother of the victim doing a life term?

May 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria Westbrook

Victoria, that's a good point, although an attorney would see our perspectives differently. I think Holle's case is very disturbing and I know of other cases that I perceive as unfair in sentencing too. I believe the felony murder rule needs a solid going over. While we do want those responsible to pay for their crimes, we are in my opinion ignoring state and federal constitutions when it comes to sentencing. I don't think Holle should have received any sentence. He wasn't there and he didn't stand to benefit.

Sam, I agree.

Thanks to both of you for your input.

May 12, 2009 | Registered CommenterKay B. Day, Editor

There are hundreds of CHILDREN every year given LIFE sentences for felony "murder". A large portion of them get sentenced to DIE IN PRISON -- absolutely no possibility of parole. Many such children had no idea someone might die and had nothing to do with the murder itself.

These kids have no clue about the bogus "felony murder" invention. CHILDREN are in particular vulnerable to it because they often freely admit what they did instead of trying to get a deal. Applying it to them makes a mockery of the pretense that these kids were "adult" enough to know the possible legal consequences of their actions.

Amnesty International documented more that ONE THOUSAND inmates sentenced to DIE IN PRISON for felony "murder" committed when they were juveniles -- some as young as 13!

At the same time the soldier who masterminded the MURDER of an Iraqi family (including a 6-year-old child), simply so he can RAPE a 14-year-old girl, will be eligible for parole in I think 7 years. And there are thousands of adults like him getting lesser punishments for murder or rape of children than what children get when they are made responsible for the action of someone else (often an ADULT).

Treating thousands of CHILDREN far more harshly than thousands of ADULTS praying on children is part of what makes the U.S. "justice" system such an utter DISGRACE in the eyes of the civilized world.

When is America going to wake up?

June 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDidacticus

“No car, no crime.”

By this reasoning you could go so far as to say that Sylvia Garnett is equally responsible in the murder because she gave birth to him.

"No Sylvia Garnett, no Ryan Holle, no car, no crime."

I want to know why the prosecution went so far to convict this man. Did they honestly believe this man to be a threat? Did they know something we didn't know? We need laws in place to protect people from overzealous prosecuters, rediculous defenses and dumb juries that can be convinced to believe anything.

@ Didacticus

It's scary. I just hope I never get caught up in it.

September 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJayOx

I love Victoria Westbrook's comment "no marijuana, no murder". This law is completely ambiguous and designed to be used at a prosecutors mercy. We can list a slew of "hypothetical" situations. "No car manufacturer, no murder" " No weapon manufacturer, No murder" I can barely see Ryan being held civilly liable for this let alone criminally. The problem is not necessarily with this law, and I believe the intent of the law was intended for get away drivers and someone a party to the crime. The problem is with Escambia County and their complete disregard for the law. They violate due process multiple times on a daily basis, with overzealous prosecutors and lazy, prideful, judges, this county has been known for manipulating the law in an effort to prosecute anyone. Interesting enough Judge Shackleford on this case along with Judge Frank Bell are very known around the "justice circles" as being "hang em" judges and at times seem as if they have a hidden agenda on the bench. I hope and pray that Ryan Holle has his case expedited in appellate court and finally seeks justice in this case. My last suggestion to Pensacola residents is move. Stay away from the corrupt system of Escambia County.

October 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Turner

I believe the law puts those who cannot afford an expensive attorney at a definite disadvantage. I also believe the law makes a mockery of justice in cases like Ryan Holle and others I know of, Those who directly participate in a crime or who profit should be charged. But those who are on the periphery, in my opinion, should not receive the sentence he did.

This column has been up for months, but it still continues to draw traffic. That tells me the public is becoming more aware.

Thanks to all for weighing in.

October 24, 2009 | Registered CommenterKay B. Day, Editor
My son Larry was convicted under the felony murder rule in Florida also back in 1991.
My son drove two of his so called friends to an auto part store. One of the persons asked my son to drive them to the auto part store so he could purchase a throwout bearing for a pickup truck. My son was duped into driving them because the other two had no car. Once they arrived at the Auto Part Store they told my son to wait in the car and not to get out. Larry began to question them for the real purpose of them being there. It was told to larry that they were there to collect drug money owed to their cousin. Larry was told they would give him a hundred dollars if he would wait for them to go in and get the drug money. He was also told that if he left them they would do bodily harm to him. He had just turned 18 by two weeks. Larry was scared and he waited for them to come out of the building. The other two boys shot and killed the clerk while they were in the building in addition to robbery.
My son was convicted to life in prison and was also convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to 75 years to run concurrent for the armed robbery. The two boys that went into the store were convicted of armed robbery however, they were sentenced to five (5) years to run concurrent. Does that make any sense at all of our judicial system? He was 18 years old when he went to Florida Prison. He is now 38 years old and still incarcerated. I have spent my life savings and retirement income to get my son a fair trial. We are no closer today than we were in 1991. He has had four attorneys assigned to his case. Appeal after appeal and the judge who has presided over two of his appeals was an assistant state attorney who worked on his case for the state before she became a judge. She should have recussed herself from those hearings. We reported her to the ethics commission in Tallahassee, Florida, and they said nothing was done improper. What do you think about this case. I would truly like to hear your input PLEASE.
Feel free to email me your comments at
January 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin Fordham
Unfortunately, Larry made a conscious decision to be a part of the crime the second he made the decision to stay in the car for $100 after gaining "knowledge" of an ensuing crime. (The law clearly states that you have to "Assist" *and* have prior knowledge of the crime).

I think the best thing that you can do as a parent in this situation is to spend the rest of your efforts in "educating" other parents to engage their kids to inform them of the potential of these sorts of things. Go talk to the schools, organize awareness groups, churches, what ever it takes, but teach the teens of America of what can happen, and to not get into situations like this. In Larry's case, fact remains, HE was still the driver, - he could have just said NO, dumped them off at the parts store, and squealed tire out of the place. And as a parent, were you aware that your son Larry was associating with kids who "had cousains that were involved with drugs, and drug money" ?
January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve J
Who is the scumbag prosecutor in this case and how does he sleep at night?
May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake
Oh, and Steve J, shut the fuck up and keep your outrageous judgements to yourself.
May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake

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