LaKeith reflects after having been handed down a 65 year sentence for a murder that he never committed. Lakeith declined a plea deal that would have sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Why would someone choose 65 years over 25? Because Lakeith was not going to plead guilty to something that he did not do and he never imagined that he would be found guilty of murder since he did not commit one. The felony murder rule/law does not care if you committed a murder.
Background - How can this happen in the US Justice system?
Every country that has ever had a felony murder law (also called by other names) has long since abolished it. Several states within the US have also repealed these laws and other states are seeking repeal or reform. California recently passed a law that is one of the most comprehensive in regard to reform. In the United States prosecutors hold on to this law with everything that they have. They fight against repeal or reform. Why? Because under the felony murder law also called merger doctrine or accomplice liability law a prosecutor does not have to prove murder yet they obtain another shiny spot on their resume with a murder conviction. Sound unreasonable? It is!
These laws basically state that if a person is committing a qualifying felony and someone dies during the commission of or while fleeing the original crime than all parties involved can be charged with murder. The United States Supreme Court requires certain elements in legal doctrine. One of which is mens rea. Mens Rea refers to criminal intent. The literal translation from Latin is "guilty mind." The plural of mens rea is mentes reae. A mens rea refers to the state of mind statutorily required in order to convict a particular defendant of a particular crime. Whats this you say? He had to have "intended" to murder or had a murderous state of mind? Not under the felony murder law/rules. He merely only had to intend to commit the qualifying felony. There are many loop holes in these laws that allow the "rules" to be thrown out the window. According to The Cornell Law School and Wex Legal Dictionary "The prosecution typically must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offense with a culpable state of mind. Justice Holmes famously illustrated the concept of intent when he said “even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”. Mens rea is necessary to separate "wrongful from innocent conduct" Both mens rea and culpability are of little consideration in a felony murder case, only the mens rea or culpability that applies to the qualifying crime that resulted or contributed to a death. In most states a conviction comes with a mandatory minimum sentence that the judge has no say so in. In some states that mandatory sentence is either life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
The police shot and killed Mr. Smith's friend but Mr. Smith was convicted of that murder.
Sound shocking? It is shocking but sadly not uncommon. In 2015 when Lakeith was 15 years old and several friends including A'Donte Washington 16 were had broken into two homes. Police responded to a call about the second home invasion and responded to the scene. A'Donte Washington ran at one of the officers pointing a .38 caliber hand gun. One officer pulled his sidearm and shot A'Donte Washington 4 times, killing him at the scene. As far as we know Mr. Smith was unarmed. A lot of people would say that these young men deserve what they get since they were, after all, breaking into a homes. Agreed that a person who is committing a crime should be charged with a crime and serve the appropriate sentence. Not many people would disagree with that. But burglary is not murder. Robbery is not murder. As you can see Mr. Smith murdered no one. The officer who shot and killed Washington was cleared of any charges. In many states there are stipulations that the victim can not be a co-conspirator, they must be an unattached victim meaning that the death of one of the accused does not qualify the others for felony murder. Alabama does not have that stipulation. A reasonable person would say that if a group of people are committing a crime they are all taking their own lives into the their hands and if one were to be killed during that crime that is a risk that he/she took. Not in Alabama. Their law provides that even if it is a co-conspirator that dies the survivors are responsible for that life. Indiana had a famous call where a homeowner shot and killed a teen that had broken into him home with a group of other teens. The surviving teens were held legally liable for the death regardless of not having weapons or shooting their friend. See the Elkhart 4
Lakeiths attorney is quoted "The officer shot A'donte, not Lakeith Smith," Smith's lawyer, Jennifer Holton, said during the trial. "Lakeith was a 15-year-old child, scared to death. He did not participate in the act that caused the death of A'donte. He never shot anybody." Lakeith received three sentences that he will serve back to back: 30 years for murder (the one he did not commit), 15 years for burglary and 10 years each for two theft convictions. Lakeith has been reported as having smiled and even laughed after being sentenced. A nervous reaction? In disbelief? No one knows and really it does not matter. Everyone would respond to the situation differently and we decline to guess what was going on in Lakeiths head at that time. The judge, however, had something to say about that. “I don’t think Mr. Smith will be smiling long when he gets to prison,” Robinson said. “We are very pleased with this sentence. Because the sentences are consecutive, it will be a long time before he comes up for even the possibility for parole, at least 20 to 25 years.” Recent scientific studies confirm that the rational part of a teen's brain isn't fully developed and won't be until age 25 or so. In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain's rational part. Lakeith was 15 at the time of the crime and 18 at sentencing. Should we try to guess why he reacted the way that he did? We don't think so. The bottom line is that murder is murder, burglary is burglary. No question that Lakeith should be have been charged with a crime that he actually committed but he did not commit murder.
Lakeith had the opportunity to take a plea deal that would have sentenced him to 25 years, the time he would have gotten for the actual crimes of burglary and theft though those would have likely been lessened by a plea bargain. He declined believing that he would not be convicted of a murder that he did not commit. Most of the time the felony murder law/rule forces someone to take a plea deal to avoid the mandatory min of LWOP or the death penalty which is another issue that makes this law/rule unjust. It is very difficult, in fact near impossible, to defend against a felony murder charge since the prosecutor does not have to prove a murder. In nearly all the cases that we have seen the DA stacks the charges which almost always insures a conviction. That is not a fair and just system. Many people charged with this type of murder are also charged with involuntary or wreckless and in some cases 2nd degree. This way if they can not prove the involuntary or wreckless they know they are going to get felony murder anyway. People that find themselves charged with felony murder are advised by their attorney to take the plea deal because the cards are stacked against receiving justice. The prosecutor has all of the power in these cases, holds all of the cards, so usually the plea offered is not a good one and usually there are stipulations such as waiving your right to appeal. None of this paints a picture of a fair justice system where a defendant has a chance to prove their innocence. Regardless of the wording"innocent until proven guilty" a defendant does have to prove they are innocent in our real world.