Last week, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim dismissed murder charges his office had filed against a group of teenagers, not because the charges did not fit the allegations against them but because he said they were, under the circumstances, too harsh.
Call his decision a proper use of the vast discretion prosecutors have. Call it a craven concession to public protests over his initial decision. Call it a combination of the two.
But the kids — ages 14 to 18 — were spared application of Illinois’ “felony murder” rule that comes into play when individuals embark on a crime spree and their plans go awry.
In this case, one of the six-member group — 14-year-old Ja’Quan Swopes — was shot and killed by a homeowner who warned the group away from his car and then fired three shots when two of them, including Swopes, approached him in a threatening manner.
“After full consideration of all the evidence, mitigation presented by defense counsel as well as the wishes of the victim’s family, my office has entered into an agreement with defense counsel for the five offenders. This agreement ensures all offenders will be held responsible, and face appropriated sentences,” Nerheim said.
In other words, he announced, all the parties had worked out a plea deal in which the most serious charge against the five — murder — will be dismissed and the perpetrators will plead guilty to lesser, but still serious, charges.
It was a run-of-the-mill plea deal worked out under unique circumstances where critics assailed the prosecution while minimizing the conduct of the wrongdoers.
For example, consider how Chicago defense lawyer Jed Stone characterized his client’s conduct.
“This 16-year-old boy — who was looking at 20 to 60 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with — is going home, and that’s a happy day in the life of this lawyer,” he said.
Lawyers are paid to minimize the misconduct of their clients. But Stone’s suggestion that his client and the rest of the group had “nothing to do” with Swopes’ death is typical defense attorney bilge.
In fact, they had everything to do with Swopes’ death, and that’s why they were initially charged with “felony murder.”
In this case, the group ventured out from Chicago to the suburbs to commit burglaries and steal cars. In the early-morning hours of Aug. 13, they were driving a stolen Lexus when they stopped in front of a residence in the Old Mill Creek community of Lake County to examine a car.
The 75-old-year resident of the house, who spotted what was going on, came outside and directed the youths to leave. Instead, two of the group brazenly approached the homeowner, one of them apparently armed with a knife later recovered at the shooting scene.
The resident fired three shots, one of which struck Swopes in the head. The group then fled the scene, later taking police on a high-speed chase.
The natural question, for the uninitiated, is why authorities would charge the youths with murder when the homeowner fired the fatal shot at a member of their group.
It’s because a death occurred as a consequence of the group’s criminal behavior. The fact that he was shot by the homeowner doesn’t excuse the group members’ behavior; it implicates it because but for the group’s decision to engage in criminal behavior, Swopes would still be alive.
As retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman put it in a previous high court case, “it is unimportant that defendant did not anticipate the precise sequence of events.”
Here’s the ironclad role that underlies the felony murder rule — when people embark on a criminal misadventure, bad things can happen, bad things that are not strictly limited to the intended victims, but all the parties, and they will be held legally responsible.
In this case, Swopes died, and his co-conspirators are legally liable for his death.
Of course, circumstances do matter, as do the history and characters of the youths who were initially charged with murder.
So the state’s attorney’s office cut them a break on the big charge while demanding accountability for their criminal behavior on the lesser offenses.
Not surprisingly, some people close to the case and the news media have pointed at the homeowner as somehow responsible for what occurred.
Showing blind love for her son, Swopes’ mother has suggested she’s looking for a lawyer to sue the homeowner, whose actions were legal.
“He should have stayed in his house. He took the law in his own hands. I just want justice for my baby,” she said.
Although the homeowner could have stayed in his house, he wasn’t legally required to do so.
But it is indisputable that the group of burglar/car thieves should have limited their activities that evening to those within the law. Instead, they chose to take a ride on the wild side, where events took on a life of their own and claimed an otherwise avoidable death.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.