Felony murder: Charging black teens for their friend’s death is a crime

An archaic law that even its originators no longer use is especially harsh in Illinois.

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Last Sunday, during our church’s Family and Friends service in Waukegan’s Hinkley Park, I found myself engaged in a conversation that’s lit Cook and Lake counties ablaze with opinions. Last week, five teenagers drove to a North Shore suburb with the alleged intent of burglarizing. As they walked up one driveway, they were confronted by the 75-year-old homeowner, who ultimately fired shots and killed the youngest of the teens. After a high-speed chase that ended in Chicago, the remaining five were brought into custody. Following these events, the Lake County State’s Attorney saw fit to charge the four African American teenagers with murder under Illinois’ felony murder rule. The homeowner is not currently facing any charges.

Straight and to the point, I was asked, “Pastor, what do you think about everything that happened last week⁠ — those four kids trying to rob the house then going on that chase to Chicago?” Well, here goes …

The foundations for felony murder originate in England from early common law practices made official criminal law in the early 1500s. In two cases, Lord Dacres’ and Mansell and Herbert’s, a single member of a group committed actions that resulted in the death of an innocent bystander. The associates of the guilty individual were charged with homicide under the justification that, “an unintended person [was] the recipient of the violent act.” It is perplexing how rules like this (and others like civil asset forfeiture) created hundreds of years ago, initially levied against aristocrats in a country we sought independence from, have a strange way of persisting for centuries and directly impacting specific demographics of people in our current society.

It is important to note that in the Mansell and Herbert’s case, the verdict originally used the word “homicide.” Later, however, British commentators made two significant alterations: in 1619, Michael Dalton added the word “felony” and, in 1644, Lord Dalton replaced “homicide” withmurder,” changes that persist into the present-day automatic first-degree murder conviction for felony class activity under the felony murder law. In 1827, 44 years after the American Revolution, Illinois became the first state to pass a felony murder statute based on those standards. And this version of the law explicitly allows for convictions for deaths caused by third parties, i.e. the Proximate Cause Theory.

Felony murder is rife with issues and often leads to absurd results. The law has been criticized by “judges, attorneys and legal advocates for penalizing people who never intended and did not directly cause anyone to get killed,” according to The Chicago Tribune. In some cases, people have been charged with first-degree murder when the death occurred at the hands of the police or even the victim themselves. England, Whales, and Northern Ireland have abolished the law, and Canada has deemed the rule unconstitutional. In fact, the United States is the only country in the world in which felony murder still exists. In 1961, even Illinois seriously considered eliminating the law, but instead chose to further expand the rule, declaring guilt whether accidental or intentional, regardless of whomever caused the death, resulting in our state having one of the most far-reaching policies in the country.

In the 1983 case The People vs Norman Jay Dillon, the California Supreme Court candidly criticized how courts, scholars, and legislators have negatively used the law throughout history, referring to it as a “barbaric” relic from a “bygone age” because “in almost all cases in which it is applied it is unnecessary” and “erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability.” 

Equally alarming is the difficulty in finding data about its usage. Recent work in California has found that young, African American and Hispanic, male, first-time-offenders are overwhelmingly the victims of this law, but in Illinois, no tracking of felony murder is provided in the record. A proposal to ensure that only offenders who directly cause someone’s death can be charged with murder is currently before state lawmakers.

It is ludicrous to hear how certain legislators and media outlets voiced quite loudly how the internet, video games, and mental health were to blame for the young white males who committed mass shootings in Texas, Ohio and across the nation. But for these four African American youth, the prevailing rhetoric is that they must be taught a lesson with no regard to any of the blistering conditions that presuppose their actions. Impulsive and peer-pressure influenced adolescent brains, hyper-segregation, poverty, community disinvestment, and what John A. Powell coins as “the racialization of America” seem to have no place in the conversation.

Fairness should be maintained, but it has not been. Lines were immediately drawn with the title of the first newspaper article. When law enforcement, the media, and the public utilize the words “legal gun owner” or FOID card, there is presumed innocence for the owner. Nearly every headline — digital and print — is quick to point out the legality of the firearm as if it justifies the individual’s actions. “That’s not how gun laws are supposed to work. Anyone who kills someone, whether with a legal gun or an illegal one, should be scrutinized the same way,” columnist Dahleen Glanton noted in the Chicago Tribune. Fairness demands that the accused are innocent until proven guilty and that all parties are subject to proper legal scrutiny.

This reflection does not seek to claim innocence for the youth who were involved in the incidents last week, nor is it meant to minimize the fear experienced by the 75-year-old homeowner. It is merely a charge to honor a millennia-old concept called retributive justice. From the Law of Moses to the Code of Hammurabi to Burton’s Legal Thesaurus and modern-day law, it is a time-tested understanding that the punishment should fit the crime. 

The state’s attorney should charge them with stealing a car or even trespassing on private property, but should not use a centuries-old law that even the originators no longer use to teach someone a lesson by charging them as adults and condemning them to “death-by-prison,” in addition to the loss of their friend.

This post has been updated since publishing.