Call Today for a FREE Consultation

262-923-8761

24 HOUR EMERGENCY CONTACT

California may abolish the felony murder rule. Should Wisconsin?

| Jul 16, 2018 | Criminal Defense

Shawn K. was 15 when he and three other teens broke into a neighbor’s house looking for cash. Shawn’s job was to guard the back door. Unfortunately, things did not go as expected and the homeowner was seriously injured and ultimately died. Although no one, not even prosecutors, accused Shawn of harming the victim, he was still found guilty of first-degree murder. How? The felony murder rule.

In most of the United States, people can be found guilty of first-degree murder if a death results from the commission of certain dangerous felonies. In other words, if the defendant was involved in the commission of any of a list of serious crimes, that defendant is considered responsible for any death that results.

The felony murder rule even applies when the victim is killed by police or by accident. It also applies when the person who dies is one of the conspirators.

The idea is this. By their very nature, certain dangerous felonies put people at risk of death or great bodily harm. People who intentionally commit such risky acts, the argument goes, should be held responsible when risk becomes reality. That’s certainly a reasonable way of looking at it for many people.

The rule has some pernicious consequences, however. For one thing, it disproportionately affects women and minorities. For example, one California survey found that, among women serving life sentences for murder, 72 percent were not the actual killer.

For another, it results in harsh sentences for people who never intended to put anyone at risk. As in Shawn K’s case, people with minor or peripheral roles in a crime often receive comparable sentences to the person who actually committed the murder.

For many generations, law students have been taught that the felony murder rule goes back centuries in the British common law. But some scholars now question that, finding instead that it arose in the 1820’s as American states began codifying their common law. Britain abolished felony murder in 1957, and other common law countries soon followed suit. The United States is now the only common-law country where the felony murder rule still exists. Four states have already abolished it, and Pennsylvania is considering limiting the rule.

So is California. The felony murder rule would not be abolished under a recent California reform proposal, but its application would be limited to people who actually kill someone, intend to kill someone, or are major players in a felony and act with reckless indifference to human life.

Opponents of the bill argue that the felony murder rule deters some people from committing dangerous felonies. In the experience of many defense attorneys, however, people simply aren’t aware enough of the rule to be deterred by it.

The California bill would apply retroactively and allow people serving time for felony murder to apply to the court to re-examine their sentences. That has drawn stiff opposition from prosecutors, who argue it may cost millions to process hundreds of cases, some so old there may be little left in a court file for a court to consider. But advocates note that cost will be offset by reducing the cost of incarceration for many people, serving 25 years-to-life sentences, at an annual cost of $80,000 per inmate. 

Archives

“I just want to say thank you for the outstanding work you have done for him and let you know how much we appreciate the time and attention you gave to his case. We are obviously overjoyed by today’s dismissal!” (Child pornography case dismissed after motion to suppress was granted)”

“After having had time to exhale, we thank each one of you and all the others who contributed to the exemplary Supreme Court presentation. We are proud of your efforts on our behalf and, equally important, on behalf of the many present and future defendants statewide.” (Client’s comment after Supreme Court oral argument)

“Thank you. Thank you. I am so pleased to hear that we won. It doesn’t seem that it was even a close call. I appreciate your efforts.” (Oconto County defendant after Buting, Williams & Stilling got his prison sentence overturned in the court of appeals) ”

“Your time and advice was appreciated more than words can express at a time when we really needed someone to guide us.” (Client)

“The outcome was amazing, one unavailable even under identical circumstances in probably 98 percent of federal courtrooms around the country. Separate and apart from the outcome, though, I am supremely impressed by your efforts on your client’s behalf. Your comments in support of the requested sentence were perfect in tone and, having now reviewed the extensive sentencing memorandum you filed, your work in that regard was exemplary as well. Your client was certainly fortunate to have you as his attorney.” (Local federal court attorney present at a sentencing)

“I can’t thank you enough, not only for all of the tireless work that you and your staff put into my case, but for telling me what I needed to hear, at a time when I absolutely had to hear it. I consider myself blessed for everything turning out the way it did, especially since I blindly picked you out of a phone book! You helped me, my family and friends in many more ways than the money ever could.” (Child pornography client)

“I think you will find that in any circles where Kathy’s name is raised, people will always respond positively and identify her as an extremely hardworking, knowledgeable and ethical lawyer who is timely and effective with any endeavor she takes on. These circles would include colleagues, friends, prosecutors, judges, professors and others who have crossed paths with Kathy. They would also include the many lawyers like me who have referred numerous cases to Kathy, invariably with positive feedback from the clients regarding her knowledge of their case, empathy, professionalism and fair-mindedness in addressing their concerns.” (Fellow attorney)

“Thank you for giving [our son] back to us. Wonderful work!” (Family of client accused of armed robbery after charges were dismissed)

“Yes, His perfect time and perfect place, you were a part of this plan. I almost didn’t hire you, but I took a step of faith trusting Him and look what happened? Praise God. Our Lord put you in your vocation for a reason, continue to help those He brings your way. May He bless you in ALL you do!” (Client who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in a northwestern Wisconsin county. He was released from prison after attorneys got his conviction reversed.)

“I really cannot thank you enough for your past help. You really know your stuff. It is actually funny when I think about my other past attorney’s knowledge and then when I talk with you. It’s like night and day. You’re like a walking book of knowledge with a purpose-driven life. Thanks.” (Brown County client of attorney Buting)

“A year later and I still believe your defense is the single best example of lawyering I have ever seen.” (Television reporter commenting on attorney Buting’s defense of Steven Avery)

“You have a certain brilliance that makes me sure that when you talk, it is good information and I am in good hands. You tell it to me like it is even when the things you say are not always the things that I would like to hear. You keep it REAL!!!” (Brown County client)

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I feel like this was one of the biggest blessings that happened in my life. I put this along with my children being born healthy and when I survived that horrific shooting. I appreciate everything you have done for me. I couldn’t ask for better lawyers. I want to say thank you to everybody at your firm. I owe you more than the fee you so rightfully deserve. … You gave me back hope. Thank you, man! Out of my 36 years … I have never seen such kindness before. I don’t know what I did to deserve this; I’m very thankful nonetheless. Thank you for giving me hope again. Thank you for your generosity. There are still some really good people around.” (Federal criminal appeal client)

“There is no other attorney I’ve ever even heard of I’d rather have as chief counsel and leader of my defense/appeals than Jerome Buting. You’re the best. Period.” (Dane County client)

“Your advice and counsel were greatly appreciated. We appreciate you taking the time on your Sunday and evenings to help us. We are SO happy about the results! Thanks again.” (Waukesha County client)

“Thank you again … for everything. Five and one-half years of commitment, so many ups and downs and an outcome like that. You did a GREAT job.” (Waukesha County felony drug offense client)