Felony murder: guilty by association

By Paul La Rosa

Here’s a provocative question: Can you be found guilty of murder in the United States even if prosecutors cannot prove you actually pulled the trigger, wielded the knife (feel free to pick your method of murder)? Whether it surprises you or not, the answer is a decisive “Yes.”

Over the past year or so, I’ve worked on a couple of cases where the concept of “felony murder” reared its ugly head. 

You may not be aware of the concept. It’s not surprising because most criminals are not familiar with it. Basically, the felony murder rule is that, if someone dies in the commission of a felony, you the criminal are on the hook for that murder even if you never laid a finger on the murder victim or even if you had no intent to kill him or her. 

To put it in layman’s terms, suppose you and your friend decide to rob someone. You both agree to carry no weapons but, in the middle of a robbery, your friend surprises you by pulling out a knife and stabbing the victim to death. You can be convicted of murder and sentenced as if you plunged that knife in yourself.

That’s exactly what happened to Adnan Khan who has produced—with the help of the New York Times—an engaging and eye-opening video about his case. He was given a life sentence when he was 18 years old but released after 16 years when California became one of seven states to take another look at the felony murder rule. 

Now in California, the new law limits those who can be changed with murder to those who actually committed the murder. Everyone convicted under the felony murder rule is eligible for parole. Khan was eligible and was released under the new law. 

You can watch his compelling video which discusses the history of this felony murder concept and how most countries have done away with it. With the criminal justice reforms sweeping the country, you would think this law is a prime candidate for reversal. Reportedly some 36,000 inmates are serving long sentences because of it. 

As I said, I’ve worked on two cases where this concept was raised. One involved a young woman who agreed to lead her boyfriend to a pre-assigned meeting spot where another boyfriend was going to beat her ex. Instead, the current boyfriend pulled out a gun and shot the ex to death. 

For a time, the young woman, who said she was violently abused by her current boyfriend and under his control, was jailed and charged with felony murder. She was fortunate. Those charges were dropped and she eventually got five years probation after agreeing to testify against the killer. 

Not so fortunate was Enrico Forti, an Italian national who in June, 2000, was convicted of first degree murder in connection with the killing of Dale Pike who was found shot to death on a beach in Miami in February 1998. 

Forti was not convicted of felony murder but the concept was in full display at his trial when prosecutors conceded to judge and jury that Forti most likely did not pull the trigger on the gun that killed Pike. They argued he was just as guilty as if he had pulled that trigger. 

Why? Prosecutors said that Forti dropped Dale Pike off at a restaurant knowing full well that he was leading Dale Pike to his death. Forti argued he knew no such thing and that he dropped Dale Pike off at a spot he asked to be dropped off at. 

In any case, jurors voted to convict Forti of first degree murder although one juror later said she’d been bullied into the verdict and did not think there was enough evidence against Forti. In fact, there was very little physical evidence. It mostly boiled down to half a teaspoon of sand. Remember this is Miami where, uh, there is a lot more than a teaspoon of sand. 

There was no evidence presented to the jury that Forti actually physically killed anyone. There was no murder weapon presented and prosecutors conceded that the timeline indicated that Forti did not have the time to kill Pike. 

Nonetheless, Forti sits in a Florida prison for life without any hope of parole and he’s been there for 20 years. Barring a miracle, he will never be released. 

This concept—that you can be convicted of murder without having actually killed anyone—seems to go against the process of fairness. Europeans are bewildered by it but it’s still the law in the United States. 

Copyright 2019 by Paul La Rosa. All Rights Reserved.

Paul La Rosa is a CBS News writer & producer, journalist, author and book reviewer. Three-time Emmy Award winner.

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