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Closing Argument

New Scrutiny on Murder Charges Against People Who Don’t Actually Kill

The U.S. is the only country that still uses the “felony murder” legal doctrine.

The wood-paneled and red-carpeted inside of an empty courtroom.
The Robert S. Vance Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham, Ala.

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LaKeith Smith is scheduled to be resentenced Tuesday for a killing that, in the literal sense, no one — not even prosecutors — believes he committed.

Smith was one of five Alabama teenagers who burglarized two homes in 2015, when he was 15 years old. At the second burglary, police showed up — and after an exchange of gunfire — an officer shot and killed one of the teens, 16-year-old A’donte Washington.

All four surviving teens were charged with Washington’s death under Alabama’s “felony murder” law. As my colleagues Abbie VanSickle and Cary Aspinwall wrote in October, these laws exist in most states and they allow prosecutors to file murder charges “against someone involved in a crime that led to a death — even if the person didn’t pull a trigger or mean to kill anyone.”

It happens more often than many realize. The Sentencing Project found that in Pennsylvania, which has one of the country’s harshest felony murder laws, almost a quarter of people serving life without parole were convicted of that charge. Research nationwide has found that the rule disproportionately affects the young, women, and Black people. If you want to get into the legal weeds on felony murder, The Appeal and Reason both have helpful deep dives with law professors on the subject, including a muddy historical debate over its origins.

In Alabama, Smith’s three co-defendants pleaded guilty and received sentences of 17 to 28 years. Smith went to trial, was convicted, and sentenced to 30 years for Washington’s death, and another 35 for charges tied to the burglary itself: a de facto life sentence of 65 years.

The judge reduced Smith’s sentence to 55 years in 2019. According to Vice News, at next week’s resentencing supporters are hopeful that the judge could lower Smith’s prison time dramatically, or maybe even release him. His attorney convinced the judge to at least consider that Smith’s age at the time of the crime, and other mitigating factors, were not properly accounted before.

Rooting for Smith in the courtroom will be A’donte Washington’s parents, who blame the officer who killed their son — not Smith — for his death. “I feel like he shouldn’t do another day [in prison] and he needs to come home,” Washington’s mother, Vernice, told Vice News.

The dynamic is similar in Phoenix, where police shot and killed 19-year-old Jacob Harris in the aftermath of a 2019 robbery, and prosecutors charged three accomplices — including 14-year-old Johnny Reed — with felony murder. Harris’ father pleaded for leniency on behalf of all three during their prosecution, and continues to push for the officer involved to be held accountable instead.

In a deeply reported piece published this week at The Appeal, Meg O’Connor examines the case well beyond the use of felony murder and into broader questions about Harris’ death. She notes a number of apparent contradictions in statements by police and prosecutors about the shooting, and that the officer who killed Harris deleted text messages about the night’s operations.

The U.S. is the only country that still has felony murder laws, and legislative efforts to scale back their use have been limited. California narrowed its application of felony murder in 2018, shortly after The Marshall Project looked at the rule there. The Modesto Bee recently reported on three of the hundreds of people who’ve had their sentences reduced under the change.

Colorado reduced the sentencing range for felony murder in 2021, from automatic life in prison to between 16 and 48 years. Illinois also modified its felony murder law in 2021, removing it as a possibility in cases where a third party, like a police officer, rather than an accomplice, kills someone. However, the change did not free people already convicted in cases like these.

More recently, lawmakers in Minnesota proposed a change similar to those enacted in California. And in Maryland, lawmakers are considering a bill to raise the minimum age to be prosecuted under felony murder to 25.

Smith’s resentencing in Alabama isn’t the only well-known felony murder case that courts are considering in that state. Casey White, who escaped from a jail in 2022 with help from corrections Officer Vicky White (no relation), is being charged with felony murder in Vicky’s apparent death-by-suicide. This week, White’s attorneys called felony murder a “remnant of ancient legal fiction” and argued that it has no place in modern law, according to a filing obtained by northern Alabama TV station WHNT.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.