Sunday, November 18, 2007

Robbery, assault and battery, the felon and his felony

The ever-vigilant Mom sent me this news article a few days ago:
Rare Robbery Case Brings Cries of Racism

Three young black men break into a white man's home in rural Northern California. The homeowner shoots two of them to death - but it's the surviving black man who is charged with murder.

In a case that has brought cries of racism from civil rights groups, Renato Hughes Jr., 22, was charged by prosecutors in this overwhelmingly white county under a rarely invoked legal doctrine that could make him responsible for the bloodshed.

"It was pandemonium" inside the house that night, District Attorney Jon Hopkins said. Hughes was responsible for "setting the whole thing in motion by his actions and the actions of his accomplices."

Prosecutors said homeowner Shannon Edmonds opened fire Dec. 7 after three young men rampaged through the Clearlake house demanding marijuana and brutally beat his stepson. Rashad Williams, 21, and Christian Foster, 22, were shot in the back. Hughes fled.

I wasn't sure what to think about it, and since I'm not an attorney, and don't even play one on the teevee, I sent it off to Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft.

At first she wasn't going to tackle the issue, but then she emailed me back:
Thanks, this is now bothering me. I've written it up here and hat tipped you. So now you have to write about it!

Here's her take on the case, with many passionate comments:
I'm aware of felony murder laws, in which one participant in, say a bank robbery, is held liable for murder if another participant kills someone during the course of the crime or the getaway, but this California case is going a step further.

. . . The murder charge is based on California's Provocative Act doctrine --

The Provocative Act doctrine does not require prosecutors to prove the accused intended to kill. Instead, "they have to show that it was reasonably foreseeable that the criminal enterprise could trigger a fatal response from the homeowner," said Brian Getz, a San Francisco defense attorney unconnected to the case.

The doctrine is used so rarely the NAACP is alleging the charges are racially motivated. It's also are asking why the homeowner wasn't charged with murder.

I don't like the idea of making defendants liable for the acts of victims.

I also think this is a case of over-charging. The homeowner's step-son was beaten with a baseball bat and is so brain-damaged he can't feed himself and lives in a rehab facility. That's the crime the defendant should be held accountable for (assuming it wasn't self-defense) and I would bet that California's attempted murder, aggravated robbery and assault penalties, to name a few, have penalty enhancements that could keep this defendant in prison for decades if convicted of committing or aiding and abetting that attack.

I think her analysis is good. Again, I'm clearly a legal amateur here, and while I feel everyone is entitled to protect their homes, still, I'm troubled by this from the original article:
Brown and other NAACP officials are asking why the homeowner is walking free. Tests showed Edmonds had marijuana and prescription medication in his system the night of the shooting. Edmonds had a prescription for both the pot and the medication to treat depression.

"This man had no business killing these boys," Brown said. "They were shot in the back. They had fled."
And this:
"I didn't do anything wrong. All I did was defend my family and my children's lives," said Edmonds, 33. "I'm sad the kids are dead, I didn't mean to kill them."

He added: "Race has nothing to do with it other than this was a gang of black people who thought they were going to beat up this white family."

There's the unintended punch line in the last sentence: Black people who were going to beat up a white family. I'd be curious to search statistics in the county on Black vs. White crime and prosecution, and I'm pretty sure what I'd find. That doesn't excuse the crime and the beating. But vigilante style action by a homeowner can't be unchallenged.

Jeralyn mentioned a famous case in her email to me that she didn't include in her post, where prosecutorial zeal seems to have led to overcharging:
The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday reversed the felony murder conviction and life sentence of Lisl Auman, who was found guilty of murder even though she was handcuffed and in the back of a police car when a companion shot and killed a police officer.

The court said the conviction was flawed because the judge's instructions to the jury on a related burglary charge may have been improper. Auman's conviction on the burglary charge allowed the jury to find her guilty of felony murder, which carries a sentence of life without parole.

The court ordered a new trial but upheld the law that allowed Auman to be convicted of felony murder as an accomplice, even though she did not kill anyone. "... It does not matter that the defendant had no intent to kill or that the defendant did not cause the killing," the court ruled.

Maybe so, maybe not. But clearly this case, and the California one, are not black & white, no pun intended. There are shades of gray in the law; there have to be.