Murder During the Commission of a Felony
Murder during the Commission of a Felony
The taking of another life is considered one of the most serious situations in society. The killing of one human being by another is called a homicide. Some homicides may be intentional and others may be accidental. Not all homicides are against the law. For example, a person threatened with death by a criminal may have the legal right to use self-defense, even if it results in the death of the criminal.
Murder is the unlawful taking of another life. It’s usually the result of an intentional act for the purpose of causing death or an act that shows a depraved indifference to human life. Because of the bad intent on the part of the criminal, society has chosen to give the harshest punishments to criminals that commit murder. This may be a long prison sentence or even death.
One common form of murder is called felony murder. A felony murder is when a person is killed during the commission of a felony. A felony is a serious crime that’s usually punishable by more than one year in prison. There are certain key differences between felony murder and most other forms of murder.
Felony Murder Rule: Most forms of murder require an intent to commit death. Felony murder only requires the intent to commit the felony. During the course of the felony, any homicide will be considered murder, whether it’s intentional or accidental. This is called the felony murder rule.
Under the felony murder rule, all participants of a felony can be charged with murder if a homicide occurs.This is true even if a participant isn’t directly responsible for the death. For example, the driver of a getaway car can be charged with felony murder if his partner accidently shoots someone while attempting to rob a bank. The purpose for the felony murder rule is to deter people from engaging in felonies knowing that they can be liable for the actions of their partners.
Limitations on the Felony Murder RuleMany people disagree with the felony murder rule. They find the rule unfair since it doesn’t take into account the criminal’s intent to kill. Since a criminal can be charged with murder for someone else’s act, the law doesn’t differentiate between a person who has bad intentions and one who has no bad intentions.
Most states have limitations on when the rule can be used. The felony must usually be a dangerous crime or committed in a dangerous manner. Some examples of felonies that’ll support the felony murder rule include:
Some states have abolished the felony murder rule while others have severely limited it. The states that apply the rule usually classify felony murder as first-degree murder. First-degree murder is a murder committed with premeditation, during a serious felony or with extreme cruelty.
Many states will impose the death penalty for first-degree murder. However, there are restrictions for imposing a death penalty for felony murder. The death penalty can’t be imposed on someone who didn’t kill, attempt to kill or intend to kill during a felony. However, the death penalty may be imposed on a major participant of the felony who acted with extreme indifference to human life.
Credit -CRIMINAL LAW PROCESS BY LAWYERS.COM
Felony murder: "legal fiction"?
It began with a simple plan: Trevor Jones would scam a kid out of $100 and then just walk away.
But the night of Nov. 21, 1996, ultimately revolved around a loaded gun. Jones, 17, fired a single shot - accidentally, he claims - that struck 16-year- old Matthew Foley in the head and killed him.
The incident devastated two families, sent Jones to prison for life without parole and left Denver jurors questioning a felony murder sentence they found too harsh - and at odds with their findings about the shooting.
In Colorado, 60 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole since 1998 mark time in prison because of felony murder convictions. Fewer than one-fourth of adults serving life sentences for crimes during that same period are in prison on that charge.
The disparity surprises neither defense lawyers nor researchers on juvenile development. Colorado is one of only 14 states with a combination of three controversial laws: prosecutors' direct-file discretion, which allows them to circumvent the juvenile system and move directly to adult court in some crimes; the crime of felony murder, which can apply to anyone involved in certain crimes in which an innocent party dies; and life without parole for juveniles.
AdvertisementProsecution tools that can hold several individuals responsible in homicide cases inordinately ensnare young offenders, says Laurence Steinberg, director of the Philadelphia-based MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice.
"It's not only because of kids' propensity to commit crimes in groups," he says, "but also because of the developmental differences that make kids more susceptible to peer influence."
Andrew Heher, who represented Jones on appeal, calls felony murder a "legal fiction," a murder charge predicated on an entirely different crime - in this case, robbery.
"Felony murder is unnecessary and outdated because it doesn't allow for an accurate determination of culpability," Heher says. "It's unfair because it does not particularly reflect factually how this case played out, the course of events that led to the death of the victim and what transpired before the shooting occurred."
But backers of felony murder prosecutions counter that a life- without-parole penalty can deter criminals.
"It gives the message: If you're going to be involved in criminal activity and death occurs, know upfront you're going to be nailed," says former Weld County District Attorney Al Domin guez, who held that job for 16 years.
Felony murder, found in the majority of states but with varying degrees of punishment, has been around since Colorado became a state - and long before that in English common law. It holds defendants liable for first- degree murder if they commit or attempt certain felonies, such as burglary or robbery, and someone dies "in the course of or in furtherance of the crime," according to the law.
It departs from other legal descriptions of murder that take into account the accused's state of mind, and allows defendants to be charged with deaths caused by others.
Notes Steinberg: "I doubt when the statutes were written that they were intended to be used to take 15-year-olds who happened to be hanging around and sentence them to life without parole."
Trevor Jones was no bystander in Matthew Foley's death; accidentally or not, he pulled the trigger. But the jury's eventual finding in the case illustrated another quirk of felony murder law: It can blur a jury's determination of events.
Gun buy gone awry
Foley, 16, had agreed to buy a handgun for a cousin who persuaded him to make the illegal purchase. Foley contacted Jones, a schoolmate from the Eastern Plains town of Bennett.
Jones knew another teen who had recently acquired a handgun. And he saw an angle.
He could sell the gun to Foley for $100 and then take the weapon back under the pretense of explaining how to load it. Then he would leave with both the money and the gun, because Foley couldn't report the scam without admitting his own attempt to illegally buy a gun. But that's not what happened.
After a day of smoking marijuana, drinking, watching TV and tossing a football, Jones and his friend met Foley and one of his buddies that night and drove to a Denver apartment complex, according to court testimony.
Around 8:30 p.m., as the four teens sat in the car driven by Foley's friend, Jones handed the gun from the back seat to Foley in the front passenger seat. Foley passed Jones a $100 bill. Jones then asked for the gun - ostensibly to show Foley how to load it. He slid the magazine into the grip and pulled back the slide on top of the weapon to chamber a round. "What's up now, b----?" Jones said. Suddenly, he got out of the car with the gun and the money and then moved toward the front passenger window. "You better not say anything or this'll come back on you," he told Foley. The 9mm Taurus discharged, and the bullet entered the car through an inches-wide gap in the partially opened window. It hit Foley near his right temple. Foley's friend, sitting in the driver's seat, saw Jones turn to run, then stop and peer inside the front passenger window, looking surprised. Jones and his friend ran into the apartment complex. Foley's friend pulled out of the parking lot and headed to a nearby convenience store, where he sought help.
Foley died that night.
Jones hid out in a shelter at Cherry Creek State Park, he says - too frightened to go home or answer his parents' electronic pages. The next morning, he learned about Foley's death in the newspaper. That afternoon, he turned himself in to Denver police. I figured I'd go to prison for 20 years or something," he says now. "I figured they'd realize it was an accident, but I had to go deal with what I'd done. When I was taken to Denver city jail, the attorneys explained what felony murder was. That's when I realized the gravity of the situation."
The teen who had provided the gun that killed Foley cut a deal with the prosecution. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery - but in juvenile court, avoiding the lengthy mandatory sentence he could face in adult court. In return, he testified against his best friend. Although the prosecution charged Jones with first-degree murder, the jury came back with a guilty verdict on the lesser charge of reckless manslaughter. An accompanying robbery count proved a tougher call. The defense argued that Jones had committed theft, because the plan involved no force, threats or intimidation. Some early support for that position waned, and ultimately jurors pegged the crime as robbery. That sealed Jones' fate.
A felony murder conviction followed because Foley had died during the robbery, and Jones received a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole.
"A tough-guy image"
In the visiting room at the Limon Correctional Facility, Jones, now 26, can't pinpoint any one thing that turned him into the kind of teen who found himself the defendant in a murder trial. He says he absorbed the worst elements of popular culture and embodied the worst possible result. In music, movies and, eventually, friends, Jones embraced the extremes to his parents' dismay and his own delight. His grades suffered, he dabbled in drinking and drugs, and he got into fights. "The only term I can think of would be like a thug," he says now. "I enjoyed the image. It was a tough-guy image, but more overall I was trying to be cool. But I'm not going to blame the influences around me as the source of my evils. I just gravitated to that for some reason." After Jones' arrest, his family disintegrated. Jack and Patty Jones' marriage of 28 years went on the rocks. Both sank into depression and drank, and they divorced. Jack lost his aviation business and eventually opened an auto oil and lube shop in Lakewood. Patty moved back to Oklahoma. Jennifer Jones - 19 at the time of the crime - also reached a life-changing moment. During her brother's appeal, she listened to a lawyer for the state argue that while the shooting may have been a tragic accident, "the law's the law." In those words, she found a new purpose. In May, she'll graduate from the University of Denver law school, burdened by massive student loans but buoyed by the idea of becoming a public defender.
"It's a way of coping," she says, "to try to do something positive."
Foley's parents, Gail and Wayne Palone, also have used positive action as a coping tool.
Every September since their son died, they have held an auction and dinner to raise money for college scholarships delivered in his name. Applicants must write an essay on how to prevent teen violence.
But their son's death also tore at the family in ways that only began with grief. Although the Palones never believed that Jones fired the shot accidentally, they reserve a separate disdain for Foley's cousin, whose desire for a handgun sucked their son into the incident. "He's no longer part of this family," says Gail, the youngest of eight siblings. She struggled with depression. She and Wayne went to two meetings of Parents of Murdered Children but felt overwhelmed. They sought private counseling. Gail's dad, who felt the loss of a friend as well as a grandson when Foley died, went with them. Foley's parents remember him as a 16-year-old kid with a soft heart - a kid who once decided to forgo the mountain bike he craved for Christmas so the money could provide gifts for needy children. The family had moved from Northglenn to about 40 acres on the Eastern Plains as Foley turned 14. At his previous school, shell casings had been found in a locker room, prompting Gail and Wayne to seek a smaller, safer community.
Foley never excelled in class but dreamed of attending the University of Notre Dame and becoming a sports journalist. On their sprawling property, Wayne responded to his son's affinity for baseball by constructing a backstop and field just outside their door. Foley half-joked about planting corn beyond the outfield to create his own "field of dreams."
Now, Gail and Wayne open the mailbox to wedding or birth announcements from his classmates, bittersweet reminders of what they've missed. Songs play on the radio. Favorite TV shows air. Credit-card applications arrive in the mail addressed to Matthew Foley.
"He was a good kid - happy," says Gail. "He always had a smile on his face."
"We followed the rules"
Jones appealed his case on the grounds that he couldn't be convicted of both reckless manslaughter and felony murder for Foley's death. All parties agreed that one conviction or the other had to be thrown out.
A three-judge appeals court panel, which convened in Boulder at the University of Colorado's law school, voted unanimously to toss the manslaughter conviction and keep the felony murder conviction with its life sentence.
The appeals court sought to "maximize the effect of the jury's verdict," in the words of a previous legal decision, by giving weight to the convictions that carried the harshest sentences.
But three of four jurors contacted recently say the court's ruling betrayed their findings. The fourth questioned a life sentence that allowed no consideration for parole.
Martin Caplan, who served as foreman of the jury, learned the severity of Jones' sentence shortly after the trial and has struggled with it since. "I think I always was the kind of person who likes to follow the rules, and we followed the rules in that trial," recalls the 64-year- old former school headmaster and math teacher. "I don't know if it's just my getting older or some of the things I see in our country lately, but part of me feels that now I don't know whether we should have followed the rules or just done what's right." Given the chance to deliberate again, he says, he would probably find Jones guilty of theft, rather than robbery, to sidestep what he regards as an unfair felony murder sentence.
Juror Jill Fruhwirth, a 46-year- old preschool teacher, doesn't have an issue with the life sentence, although she doesn't agree with the way it slams the door shut on parole. "To me, the bottom line is he took another life," she says. "I don't know if I'd have taken away possibility of parole, but I would have imposed a very stiff sentence. The victim had rights too, and so did his family."
The decision to deny Jones' appeal was "essentially a foregone conclusion," says Kathleen Byrne, special assistant attorney general representing the state in the Jones case. Appellate decisions repeatedly have affirmed the felony murder statute's wide-ranging scope. Once prosecutors file a felony murder charge, the jury must determine only the facts regarding the underlying felony - robbery, in Jones' case - and whether a death was caused in the process. "And that's the end of the inquiry," says Byrne. "Whether that's right or wrong is a legislative decision."
Like many inmates facing hard time, Jones experienced a jailhouse religious conversion. But unlike most, he has taken his recently minted faith and forged ahead into academia. He studies Scripture in Greek and Aramaic. He pursues college-level courses in theology and philosophy and hopes to attain a general-studies degree. He wants to develop his faith further with correspondence classes through a Florida seminary. He regularly helps with worship services in the Limon prison.
He has one federal appeal left until his options dissolve into a request for gubernatorial clemency or some legislative sea change in the justice system that might affect him retroactively.
"I believe an injustice occurred," he says, citing both the accidental nature of the shooting and his juvenile status. "I was the pre-eminent 'dumb kid.' It doesn't make sense that the gravity of the crime changes your level of culpability."
When mandatory life without parole became law in 1990 for first-degree murder, felony murder took on more significance and urgency for the legal defense community, which realized the combination of laws created a powerful set of tools for prosecutors. Over the next few years, the law would be assailed by critics as unfairly casting a net over defendants who didn't have a direct role in a murder.
That conflict culminated in the case against Lisl Auman, an adult, who got life without parole despite the fact that she was sitting handcuffed in a police car when an acquaintance fatally shot a Denver police officer in 1997. The Colorado Supreme Court eventually threw out the verdict over a flawed jury instruction, but the statute remained intact.
Among other criticisms: Prosecutors sometimes use the threat of a felony murder charge as a hammer in plea negotiations - with varying reactions among juvenile defendants.
Joshua Beckius, who was 14 at the time Boulder authorities believed a group of youths robbed a movie theater and killed the manager, initially denied involvement in the 1993 crime when police pointed a finger at him two years later. But under pressure to plead to second-degree murder or face felony murder charges and potential life without parole, he took the deal - even as serious discrepancies emerged among witness accounts. His hopes of a six- to 10-year sentence reflecting his youth and a lesser role in the incident vanished as the judge gave him 40 years. He'll be eligible for parole in 2013.
Lorenzo Montoya, also 14 at the time of his offense, had a different dilemma when he was charged in the New Year's Day 2000 murder of a Denver teacher. Denver prosecutors believed that as many as five people participated in the killing, and they singled out Montoya for a deal. If he would identify and help convict the others involved, authorities would let him plead to lesser charges carrying only a six-year sentence in the Youthful Offender System, which offers education and rehabilitation. Against the urgings of his family and his lawyers, Montoya rejected the deal, insisting on his innocence. A jury found him guilty of felony murder, and at 15 he went away for life without parole.
Retired El Paso County District Judge Jane Looney believes the state should examine whether felony murder unfairly targets youths and whether indeed it can be considered an effective deterrent.
"I've given lots of thought to this, and I think it's not a deterrent," she says. "I just don't see it that way. When kids are acting out, they're not thinking about the law."
Staff writer Miles Moffeit can be reached at 303-820-1415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Kevin Simpson can be reached at 303-820-1739 or email@example.com.
A teenager serves life in prison because authorities found his fingerprints at the scene of a murder. But jurors doubted he killed the victim, and police failed to fully investigate other key suspects."I'm just a ghost now," writes Sam Mandez, who was 14 at the time of the crime in 1992 and had no previous violent offenses. "I'm the living dead."
Another teen faces life behind bars for killing his mother. Jurors didn't hear his story of parental abuse because his attorney never investigated.
Testimony in the trial of 16-year-old Nathan Ybanez lasted only a day.
A third teen with a history of alcohol problems is serving a life sentence for a fatal hit-and-run incident after a day of heavy drinking. Prosecutors cast the circumstances as a gang killing - a theory even the victim's mother discounted.
At 17, Dietrick Mitchell became a "throwaway" into the prison system.
All three youths were prosecuted in adult criminal court during the past two decades as part of Colorado's crackdown on juvenile crime.
All three were swept into prison under questionable circumstances by a combination of tough sentencing laws and Colorado district attorneys who wield some of the broadest powers in the country to prosecute juveniles.Colorado is among 14 states where prosecutors can charge juveniles with adult crimes that could lead to life in prison with no chance of parole. With 45 people now locked away forever for crimes committed when they were younger than 18, Colorado ranks 11th in the nation for the rate at which life sentences are imposed on juveniles.
The process that put them away has struck a nerve with judges, jurors, lawyers and legislators who believe the adult system has mishandled some juveniles' cases.
"I want to be tough on crime," says state Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, who has unsuccessfully fought for reforms and wants to give juveniles serving life a shot at parole. "But I also want us to be smart on crime and use our heads. Some of these kids don't deserve life (without parole)."
During the past three decades, Colorado has eroded long-standing legal protections for juveniles and cut treatment options while adopting harsher penalties.
The trend unfolded amid frustrations - aggravated by some shocking, high-profile cases in the 1980s - that the juvenile system failed to adequately balance punishment and public safety with its role of rehabilitation.
More recently, sentences that put juveniles in adult prisons with no chance for release have provoked cries for reform. But little public attention has focused on the convergence of circumstances that can put young offenders away for life.
A Denver Post investigation has found:
Colorado prosecutors filed 1,244 cases that resulted in juvenile convictions in adult courts since 1998, according to an analysis of state court administrator data. The actual number of juveniles convicted and sentenced to prison or other sanctions can't be determined from the data.
Forty-four cases involved offenders who were 14 - the earliest they can be directly charged as adults - at the time of their crimes. Of 1,625 total charges, about one-third involved robbery or assault; less than 3 percent involved homicide.
Flawed investigations and questionable defense work have compounded legal problems for teens in life-without-parole cases. In the Ybanez case, the teen's attorney never seized on evidence that his client was abused. In the Mandez case, authorities decided to revive a murder investigation to seek additional suspects in response to questions from The Post.
Felony murder charges are applied disproportionately to Colorado youths. Among juveniles sentenced to life since 1998, 60 percent went to prison on felony murder convictions, compared with 24 percent of adult cases. Felony murder allows prosecutors to hold someone responsible if a person died during the commission of certain felonies - even if there was no intent to kill or that person's actions didn't directly cause the death.
A growing body of research indicates teens often are confused by the court system and perhaps not competent to stand trial in adult court. But Colorado law provides no guarantees that a guardian ad litem or parent will be present during police interrogations and other steps in the adult justice system. In at least six cases reviewed, an adult advocate was not present during a key phase in the legal process.
A push for punishment
Public furor erupted over rising juvenile crime in the late 1980s and the 1990s when the number of juveniles arrested in violent crimes rose from 947 in 1982 to more than 1,800 by the time of the so-called Summer of Violence in 1993.
By the early '90s, lawmakers began shifting resources and attention from juvenile rehabilitative programs to the Department of Corrections. Mandatory life without parole for some crimes became effective in 1991. Legislators expanded direct-file laws, by which prosecutors can bypass the juvenile justice system to charge teens as adults without review by a judge or uniform criteria imposed by the state.
Lawmakers' stated emphasis: protect the public from a new breed of juvenile criminal - one who seems more unpredictable and more menacing.
"This state unleashed a lot of anger toward its kids through its laws," says Jerry Adamek, former director of Colorado's juvenile justice programs, who watched the state race from a treatment approach to more punitive measures.
Since the state's crackdown began, 45 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole. The last commutation of a juvenile serving prison time came almost 30 years ago.
Colorado has put 18.34 of every 100,000 youths ages 14 to 17 away for life without parole, according to the advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In terms of total cases, 12 other states have more people serving life without parole in prison for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
Hefley and The Pendulum Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, have led an unsuccessful movement in recent years to challenge prosecutorial powers and seek reconsideration of prison sentences.
But the young offenders often defy sympathy: Many carried guns, used drugs, moved with predatory packs or were linked to gruesome acts of violence. Some killed their parents. And amid a falling crime rate, reform hasn't been an easy sell to prosecutors.
The Colorado District Attorney's Council, which aggressively lobbied for prosecutors' expanded powers, has resisted attempts to limit them. Some lawmakers, as well as Gov. Bill Owens, say they haven't seen enough evidence to persuade them that the system isn't working. Last year, Owens vetoed a Hefley-sponsored bill requiring a study of the system, arguing that it involved an "unrealistic and unworkable" time frame.
Leaders of the DA council say they're charged with preserving public safety and therefore remain the best arbiters for deciding whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
But given recent scientific research on adolescent brain development and other studies showing that some young offenders lack the maturity and competency of adults, more district attorneys and judges are open to a discussion about ways to improve how the state handles young offenders. Brain science was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in overturning the juvenile death penalty.
"With societal changes, you never say things are fine and just leave them alone," says Dave Thomas, new executive director of the DA council and former Jefferson County DA. " You generate discussion and stimulate people to think about the issues and what's fair."
Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut says all teens - and adults - should be considered for rehabilitative treatment and parole. Automatic sentencing measures adopted by the General Assembly strike him as reaching outside the realm of reason, he says.
"We don't want public vendettas; we want public policy for the public good," says Thiebaut, a former state legislator. "In the end, when we reflect on our crime policy, we'll see it's cost us millions or billions of dollars."
But former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, now a gubernatorial candidate, says he has opposed previous reform efforts in part because sentencing proposals would have stripped serious crimes of adequate consequences and created inequities throughout the sentencing system.
"You'd have to undo the entire juvenile sentencing structure," he says.
El Paso County District Judge Jane Looney believes the new brain research supports the need to re-examine Colorado's approach to violent juveniles.
"They're not completely formed as human beings," she says.
Prosecutors hold power
Before the mid-1970s, teens facing felonies were primarily channeled through the juvenile justice system, which focuses on rehabilitative programs.
A juvenile court judge would weigh criteria mandated by the state, such as home environment and prior violent-crime history, before determining whether a young offender would be transferred to adult court.
Now, the number of transfer hearings held each year has dropped to zero.
Colorado is one of only 15 states that allow prosecutors, instead of judges, to decide whether youths should be charged as adults through direct files. They are not required to follow any criteria before charging kids 14 or older with the most serious felony offenses.
"Colorado prosecutors could be considered among the most powerful in the country in terms of their discretion," says Melissa Sickmund, senior research associate for the National Center for Juvenile Justice. In most direct- file states, prosecutors are required to satisfy minimum criteria or use guidelines before filing criminal charges, she notes.
Two of Colorado's neighbors, Nebraska and Wyoming, for example, require that district attorneys consider the same factors weighed by their juvenile courts in the transfer process, according to an NCJJ review.
The decision to move a juvenile to adult court exposes the defendant to significantly harsher penalties. A 14-year-old who commits a burglary in which an innocent person dies can be sentenced by a juvenile court to a maximum sentence of five years.
The same juvenile in the same circumstances facing a judge in adult district court - and facing felony murder charges - could be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
From 1998 through 2004, prosecutors averaged 176 direct-file convictions a year. More than 300 of those cases wound up in the Youthful Offender System, a DOC-run "last chance" for juveniles with violent or chronic criminal histories.
Thomas of the DA council points to a drop in violent crimes during much of that period - juvenile arrests for violent crime fell from 1,446 in 1995 to 1,027 in 2003, according to state data - as an indicator that the system works.
But he acknowledges the difficulty of drawing definitive cause-and-effect conclusions. And researchers note that juvenile crime nationwide is down, even in states that don't give prosecutors tools such as direct- file discretion.
In addition to boosting prosecutors' powers in recent decades, state lawmakers have expanded police authority and sentencing laws that have affected juveniles.
In 1996, for example, they gave police more latitude to interrogate suspects younger than 18 without an adult present.
The law now allows authorities to seek waivers from parents, who frequently don't understand the process or consequences.
Denver teen Chris Selectman was convicted of felony murder when he was 16, partly based on an interrogation conducted outside his mother's presence. At trial, the accounts of Selectman and the interviewing officer diverged, but the prosecutor seized on the interviewing officer's account, a fact that helped seal the conviction, Selectman and his attorneys believe.
"They began to build their case upon a misconception," Selectman says in a letter from prison.
Colorado also is one of 14 states with three controversial laws on its books: direct-file discretion; the charge of felony murder; and life without parole.
"Prosecutors have been given enormous powers that can be a source of injustice," says Kathleen Lord, chief appellate deputy for the state public defender's office, who has vigorously fought felony murder convictions against juveniles. "When you throw in felony murder and the life sentence, you don't need as much evidence to throw a kid away."
Prosecutors are bringing felony murder charges against youths far more often than adults, according to state court administrator data. Prosecutors must prove only an underlying offense, such as burglary, and that someone died in the course of the crime. Of 15 juveniles sentenced to life without parole since 1998, nine were convicted of felony murder. That compares with 30 of 127 adult cases.
The Sam Mandez case, handled on appeal by Lord, raises the question of whether a flawed murder investigation and felony murder combined to convict a youth whose fingerprints were found at the murder scene, halting a fuller probe into the killing.
"I just don't believe in our system after going through that," says Kim Wise, who sat on the Mandez jury. "It's terrible law. If more people went through it, they would understand."
Although national data on juveniles convicted of felony murder aren't available, Human Rights Watch reports that 26 percent of juvenile lifers who self-reported nationally on the subject said they'd been sentenced for felony murder - a figure well below Colorado's 60 percent since 1998.
Another twist of the felony- murder law surfaced in the 1996 case of 17-year-old Trevor Jones.
Although jurors hashed out the circumstances surrounding his fatal shooting of 16-year-old Matthew Foley and found him guilty of reckless manslaughter, an accompanying robbery count led to a felony murder conviction as well.
With the two conflicting convictions surrounding Foley's death, an appeals court threw out reckless manslaughter, and its six-year sentence, and kept the felony murder conviction - with its automatic life-without- parole sentence.
Nathan Ybanez's prosecution illustrates the adult system's weaknesses in handling parent- killers.
Ybanez, who was 16 when he strangled his mother with a fireplace tool, was not given access to a guardian ad litem - a legal advocate assigned to defendants in juvenile courts when abuse or another conflict in the home is suspected - even though abuse allegations in his case were known to the court. Instead, his father steered his defense, and the abuse was never detailed for the jury.
Though state law gives an adult court judge discretion to appoint a guardian ad litem, lawyers and judges say it isn't used often.
Dietrick Mitchell, who was 16 when charged with first-degree murder after authorities said he intentionally drove over teen Danny Goetsch, went on trial at a time of rising public concern over gang activity. Prosecutors focused on Mitchell's self-portrayal as a gang member as a motive for murder, even though there was scant evidence that he was a gangster.
Because prosecutors direct- filed on him as an adult, Mitchell - identified as an alcoholic years earlier - had no chance for rehabilitation programs available in the juvenile system when he was convicted at age 17. His attorneys say Mitchell's case illustrates the simultaneous expansion of get-tough measures and decline of treatment options.
The Pendulum Foundation promises to renew its reform campaign this year, possibly by going around the legislature - through a ballot initiative. Their own polls reflect that citizens want rehabilitation options for teen offenders, Pendulum officials say.
"We want fairness and compassion injected into the system," says director Mary Ellen Johnson
Denver Post computer-assisted reporting editor Jeffrey A. Roberts and staff research librarian Monnie Nilsson contributed to this report.