Dey felony murder rule Difanis

Champaign County Judge Thomas Difanis, a former state’s attorney, says the 'felony murder' rule appears 'rather harsh' on the surface, but it's meant to send a message that 'if you're intent on committing a felony with someone, then you are responsible if someone gets killed.'

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It’s called the “felony murder” rule. A better characterization would be the law for unintended consequences.

Rather than explain what it means, it’s more effective to describe how it worked in a recent high-profile criminal case in Lake County, one that inspired complaints about how unfair “felony murder” is or how ruthlessly it can be applied.

Six Chicago teens — ages 14 to 18 — were on a burglary and car-stealing spree in Lake County.

Driving a black stolen Lexus SUV, they pulled up in front of a house in Old Mill Creek and got out to look at a car parked in the driveway.

The 75-year-old resident of the house came out to warn the boys off. But two of them approached him in what the resident described as a threatening manner.

A licensed gun carrier, the resident fired three shots at the pair, striking one of them — the 14-year-old — in the head. The boy later died.

After his five accomplices were arrested, they were charged by Lake County authorities with murder, the theory being that if they had not joined together to engage in criminal behavior their friend would not have been shot and killed.

Since then, expressions of shock have been emanating from the chattering classes in the Chicago-land area, expressing the viewpoint that charging these young people with murder is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

The Chicago Sun-Times quoted a law professor saying in defense of the youths that “they didn’t kill anyone, they didn’t intend to kill anyone, they didn’t know anyone would be killed.”

In 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed those specific excuses. By a 6-1 vote, the high court concluded a death under those circumstances was a “direct and foreseeable consequence” of engaging in criminal behavior.

Writing the court’s majority opinion, now-retired Justice Charles Freeman wrote that “it is unimportant that defendant did not anticipate the precise sequence of events. ...We conclude defendant’s unlawful acts precipitated those events, and he is responsible for the consequences.”

The Lake County case is in its initial stages. So despite all the hand-wringing, it’s important to remember that where a case begins is often not where it ends.

That means that the defendants in this case may well, as a consequence of a plea agreements, avoid convictions of murder and be punished for some lesser crimes.

Or, depending on their criminal records, some may be treated more harshly than others.

The felony murder rule dates back centuries. It’s meant to deter individuals from joining together to engage in criminal acts that can lead to unforeseen violence and death.

One judge explained that the felony murder rules “overlaps” with the theory of “accountability.”

Under the accountability theory, all the participants in a crime, like bank robbery, are legally accountability for the criminal actions of any of the participants in that crime.

If one of two gunmen shot and kills a bank teller, both the shooter and non-shooter are legally responsible for the teller’s death.

The felony murder rule is somewhat different in that it envisions the death of one of the wrongdoers. That clearly is something the wrongdoers did not envision but for which they still face legal responsibility.

In the case Freeman addressed, an armed robber was shot and killed by his victim — a police officer carrying his service weapon.

Under felony murder, the dead robber’s partner — who was waiting for him in a nearby car — was charged, convicted and sentenced to 20 years for murder.

Champaign County Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis, a former state’s attorney, said the law appears “rather harsh” on the surface. But he said it’s meant to send a message that “if you’re intent on committing a felony with someone, then you are responsible if someone gets killed.”

He said that if he was still state’s attorney and facing a fact situation similar to the one confronted by the state’s attorney in Lake County he might have made a different decision.

“I don’t think I would have charged them with felony murder, but that’s up to the state’s attorney,” Difanis said, predicting that publicity about the case will prompt state legislators to “make a change in the felony murder rule.”

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.