UPDATE: Ryan Holle was re-sentenced to a term of 25 years with an additional 10 years of probation. He was originally sentenced in 2004. While this is better than LWOP, it is not necessarily the right outcome. Read the story and decide for yourself. Does loaning your car to someone somehow make you responsible for another person's actions?
Written by Melissa Higgins - Advocate Ryan Holle was convicted of felony murder in 2004. He did not participate in the murder or the burglary that precipitated it, but because he loaned his car to a roommate and it was used by those who perpetrated the crime, Ryan experienced the same consequence as those directly involved: life without any possibility of parole.
I have told Ryan’s story previously, but it is one I am particularly compelled to repeat because of the gross injustice this man has experienced. When I first learned about Ryan’s predicament I had a hard time believing it. I kept thinking there had to be something about his story I was missing. I first thought that perhaps he had a prior criminal history that prompted the prosecutor to come down harder on him. Upon learning this was not true I felt I should reach out to Ryan to learn about him as a person and try to understand the extreme sentence he was given.
Ryan was convicted under the Felony Murder Rule. This law exists in the majority of states in some capacity. Typically, states like Florida use this rule to hold anyone deemed as a participant in a crime equally culpable. The name of this law reflects the fact that it may be applied when a death occurs during the commission of a homicide. The sentencing is as severe as if the person committed first degree murder, even in cases where the resulting death was an unintended consequence of the felony component of the crime.
Some claim this rule is fair and is intended to act as a deterrent, but the truth is it does not deter crime because many people have no idea what felony murder is or how it works.
Five teenagers in Indiana allegedly broke into a home (http://freetheelkhart4.com/who-are-the-elkhart-4/) during the evening hours. The homeowner, upon hearing the commotion, grabbed his gun. He fired many shots, killing one of the intruders and wounding 16 year-old Blake Layman. As shots rang into the air, the teenagers scrambled to escape. One was so frightened by the man and his gun he jumped through a window to get away.
All of the surviving teenagers were charged with felony murder. The prosecutor, Curtis Hill, is justifying this charge (which exposes these teens to life without parole sentences per the state’s statutes) by claiming he needs to use this case as an example. He is doing this as though the loss of one young man’s life is not a salient enough wake up call.
That is not to say there should be no additional consequence at all. Blake Laymon has no prior record. He made a very poor decision when he accompanied the group to the home, but should he receive a life without parole sentence because the homeowner shot and killed a member of the group? Absolutely not.
The prosecutor in the above case has the ability to charge the teenagers appropriately – without seeking an egregious sentence that will not deter future crime (it hasn’t so far in the many states this rule is applied in). Whatever happened to charging people with the crime they actually committed? I hear they do this in some countries, but it is a concept that is completely foreign to me since I live in the United States.
Three states have deemed the felony murder rule completely unconstitutional. Some may support the above prosecutor’s decision, but people who have teenagers or care about the welfare of teenagers in general, are going to find this decision hard to comprehend. It also sets a dangerous precedent for prosecutors throughout Indiana, and in states where this kind of charge is allowed.
But back to Ryan.
I spoke to Ryan about sharing his story in more detail with others and he said that was something he wanted to do. He began by explaining the Felony Murder Rule and how it works in Florida. He then said, “In my case, I was sleeping after a house party, hungover…I overheard talking about going over to Jessica’s house (the victim) and talk about robbing her. They were laughing, but at the same time they talked about getting food. I never took it serious because the guy living with me at the time, William Allen, dated her on and off.” The discussion about getting food threw him off as well.
Believing his roommate was not serious about stealing from Jessica, and only intended to use the car to get food, Ryan gave him his car keys. He had loaned his car to the roommate without incident in the past and so he did not have any reason to believe this time would be different.
“Due to the fact that I heard that conversation and gave the keys to my car, under the Felony Murder Rule, I am just as guilty as the guy who committed the murder.” He added that the night before Jessica had been at his house.
I asked Ryan what his reaction was to being arrested and charged with felony murder. “I was stunned,” he answered. “From the start I cooperated with investigators and told them all I knew, not knowing that they were treating me as a suspect. I wasn’t even arrested for almost a month after the crime happened. It was literally out of the blue that I was being arrested”.
He then talked about the method the investigators used to arrest him. “On the day I was arrested, I got a phone call telling me that my car (which was driven by the four men to commit the crime) was ready to be picked up from the county impound. When I got there the investigator, Jimmy Sanderson, told me that he wanted to talk to me for a minute”.
The investigator took him to an interrogation room and asked Ryan to sit down. The investigator also sat down and then another detective came into the room. He said, “We think you had something more to do with it…we are arresting you on an open count of murder”. Ryan said he never believed that it would all lead to him being convicted and sentenced to life without parole. “I’ve been incarcerated for almost ten years,” he said to me. “I’m 29 years old and have a life sentence, without the possibility of parole”. On November 17, Ryan will turn 30 in prison. Nearly a decade of his life will have passed in that environment.
I asked Ryan about his life at the time all of this took place. I was curious about what was happening when his life was suddenly and irreparably interrupted by these events, and the fateful decision that he made while he was still intoxicated from the house party earlier in the evening.
“My life at the time was to be honest, chaotic.” He added, “I had recently lost my job as a delivery driver for an egg company due to the fact I suffered some muscle damage around my right eye in a car accident.” He explained that he was renting a place with a couple of his friends and his sister.
“I had recently split with a long-time girlfriend who helped me in more areas than I realized. I was actually trying to attend college,” he said. “I wanted to go back to school to become a software engineer. I’ve always been a fan of video games and I wanted to be a part of that industry.”
I wanted to know what Ryan’s first year in prison was like. He said that it was “like all my years…hard. There is no feeling like having freedom taken away from you. I’ve always been able to provide for myself, but when you’re incarcerated you have to rely on others. Granted, I would rather have someone to rely on than no one at all.”
“Imagine being 20 years old,” he said, “and being thrust into an environment where not only are you oppressed by guards, but surrounded by people that don’t care anything about you.”
He said that experience forced him to grow up quickly. “I could sit here and curse, mope, and moan about my situation. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m here.” Since I first began writing to Ryan he informed me, repeatedly, that he has a strong desire to find ways to better himself – even though he is in prison and his options are limited. He has said this to me in light of the fact that his sentence prohibits his eventual release. “I can still grow as a person even in this environment,” he explained to me. “I used to be real self-centered in a lot of ways until my first visit in prison where my mom and stepfather told me how my attitude had effected not only them, but my friends and family. That hit me hard. I want to be someone that my family can be proud of, even if I’m here.”
Whoever Ryan used to be many years ago, he is a different person now. He is funny – with a sense of humor that has probably helped him cope during some of the harder times in prison. He is intelligent and thoughtful as well. We have discussed everything from movies to the problems with the justice system as we perceive them.
Ryan describes himself as an easy-going person “who likes to smile and make others smile.” He says that he is also passionate about his family.
“My views of the justice system have changed,” he informed me. “It’s real easy to believe in it when you have never been a part of it.” Ryan’s arrest and subsequent conviction was a wake up call to him of the worse kind.
I can relate to this because if someone had asked me when I was 20 years-old if the justice system was fair I would have answered that it was. I had no real concept of wrongful convictions or excessive sentencing practices. My views have changed dramatically as well. Ryan recounted something that happened just before his trial that could have changed his fate. “Prior to the trial I was offered a plea deal of second degree murder and ten years. My lawyer told me not to take it because there was no way I would be convicted. The state attorney offered me that plea deal because he stated that he didn’t believe I was as culpable as my co-defendants. Yet under the Felony Murder Rule I got natural life”. This has weighed heavily on Ryan. “In hindsight, should I have taken the plea deal considering the severity of the felony murder rule? Absolutely. I actually would have gone home last October if I would have.”
An additional challenge for Ryan has been learning to understand the courts and justice system. “As a pro-se litigant I have had to learn how to research and do my own motions to the courts. The courts give deadlines on filing certain motions. What it takes a lawyer 8-plus years to learn, an inmate has to learn in less than two. I am currently in the federal courts yet my Federal Habeas Corpus petition may not be heard because my appellate counsel advised me about the deadline and he was mistaken. Due to that fact my petition may never be heard. Even though I have a legitimate claim”.
Ryan is keeping himself busy by seeking educational opportunities within the prison. Recently he passed a test that has allowed him to become involved in a vocational training program. He started the program this week.
The sad part is that Ryan’s case is one of too many. In 2010, Charles Grodin wrote a letter to the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He has spoken out about the Felony Murder Rule, citing Ryan’s case as an example of how it is unjust. In his letter, he wrote, “Last year I met with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the felony murder rule, which is felt by many to be the most heinous piece of legislation we have in America. Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, currently the President of the Governor’s Association is very supportive, as is Orrin Hatch”.
Grodin ended his letter by stating, “We represent five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. As Senator Webb recently said so eloquently, ‘We are either the most evil people on the earth, or there’s something wrong with our justice system.’ I don’t believe we’re the most evil people on earth,” he concluded. Ryan’s case is a travesty of justice. This man does not belong in prison. He has much to offer society and he is willing to work hard and pave his own way. However, to get this kind of chance he’s at the mercy of those in a position of power who have the authority to help him. One of those people is the governor of Florida, Rick Scott. If Ryan’s situation has outraged you, or even seems unfair, please take a moment to let the governor know your thoughts by clicking here.
You may also take a moment to sign a petition started by Floridian John Hart. John learned of Ryan’s case and felt compelled to do something to try to help. Over 1,300 people have signed the petition on behalf of Ryan:
The petition has given Ryan a renewed sense of hope in that he now knows there are people out there who see this injustice for what it is and feel he should be released.
Ryan is grateful for any help and support he can get. If you would like to write a letter of support to Ryan, please use the following address: Ryan Holle 0-126321/B4-2130 Graceville Correctional Facility 5168 Ezell Road Graceville, FL 32440