The felony murder rule is an American institution many legal authorities date to English common law, and a 26-year-old Florida man named Ryan Holle is one who, despite no criminal record, was handed a harsh sentence by the court because of the rule. The crime was pretty simple. Holle lent his car to a roommate. The roommate connected with others who went to a drug dealer’s home to steal a safe containing drugs. The group killed the dealer’s daughter during the robbery. Holle never went near the dealer; he was nursing a hangover from the night before, 1 ½ miles away from the crime scene.
At issue is what Holle told police in various statements—authorities claim he “seemed” to admit knowing a burglary would occur. Holle has stated he thought the group was kidding, plus he was still under the influence of drinking during the night-long party. I haven’t read the transcripts, but the basis for what Holle may or may not have known hinges on the word “seemed.” Holle had lent his car to his friends before. It's impossible to gauge the validity of statements without having documentation.
The prosecutor basically told the jury “no car no crime.” How the jury bought that simplistic statement can only be analyzed if the trial transcript is available and I don’t have that at present. There’s a good recap of Holle’s story in a New York Times article in our References section below.
I followed another felony murder case for several years. In that case a young man gave some friends a ride to “pick up some weed” and a house guest at the reputed dealer’s house was killed in cold blood, without premeditation. That young man, like Holle, claimed to know nothing of plans for a crime. Those who entered the home backed up the young man, saying they’d used him for his car. He was given a life sentence but some who were more participatory received lighter sentences. I did research that case, enough to realize the consequences of having an unskilled public defender, the exaggerations by the prosecutor of what that young man admitted to and the fact that the felony murder rule is basically a prosecutor’s dream. That rule can be applied to anyone on the periphery of a murder—the hand of one is the hand of all. The burden is not on the state; the burden of proof is on the defendant who must prove what he actually knew in many cases or by what he said in some.
But is it a fair and just rule? Hawaii, Kentucky and Michigan abolished it. Anecdotally speaking, I've seen the rule most commonly applied in Florida in drug cases.
I believe those who are guilty of a crime should pay for it, with the death penalty if warranted. I can’t buy that Holle was as guilty as those he lent his car to, and nor can I buy that his car enabled the crime. Holle’s car made the crime more convenient. If someone wants to commit a crime, he will find a way to do so. Holle may have moved up the timetable unwittingly—because the perps didn’t have to look for another car. But the life sentence Holle has been handed does not, in my opinion, equate to the crime, if any, he committed. He planned on no benefits, no divide of the take, and he chose to stay home.
Is the owner of the safe Holle’s friends were after culpable, since there was a pound of pot in it? Not legally. The mother did do 3 years for possession of the pot. But the culpability raises a moral question about the circumstances that took her daughter’s life, though, like many other moral questions, it may not be applicable in the courts.
A major problem I have with the felony murder rule is the inconsistent application. Consider the man who kidnapped, raped and murdered Jessica Lunsford. He imprisoned the child in a closet in a mobile home. Have you ever been in a mobile home? I have. Sound is difficult to muffle. Yet no one else in that home was charged in this crime, only the man who committed the act. This is true of other similar cases. Why isn’t felony murder applied in cases like this, for the truly most heinous crimes?
If states continue to keep the felony murder rule on their books, the rule needs a go-over. Those who commit violent crimes should be punished as harshly as the law permits. But those who move on the periphery of crime and those whose statements are presented to a jury—statements sometimes made without benefit of an attorney—in ambiguous terms may not deserve the sentences handed down. There are different degrees of culpability the felony murder rule does not recognize. And that in my opinion conflicts with the U.S. Constitution—cruel and unusual punishment. There are those who disagree with my belief on this—they argue that any involvement is the same. But the variety in sentences is a large issue for me. In some cases, the actual doers may receive a lighter sentence than an actor who played a minor role. The hand of one is not the hand of all when it comes to sentences; the sentence depends on your attorney and whether you have the money to hire an O.J.-style dream team.
Ryan Holle was convicted of 1st degree murder, burglary and robbery with a deadly weapon.
While a victim and family deserve full redress permitted by law, punishment should be based on the involvement level of those charged. The felony murder rule needs a go-over. Holle is guilty of choosing friends unwisely, of not recognizing the consequences of lending another his property, of intoxication. But in no scenario I can imagine is Ryan Holle guilty of first degree murder, a crime for which he technically could have received the death penalty because of the robbery and burglary.
[Text by Kay B. Day; photo courtesy Florida Dept. of Corrections.]