After two days of deliberation a Baltimore County jury found a teenager guilty of first degree murder, burglary and theft for actions that lead to the death of a female police officer almost one year ago. The defendant was 16 at the time he was arrested in Perry Hall after running over the officer with a stolen Jeep. Three other male co-defendants are still awaiting trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. All four were under the age of 18 and all were charged with first-degree murder in adult court. A juvenile who is charged with first degree murder and was 16 or older at the time of the offense is prohibited from requesting a transfer to juvenile court, which in Maryland is called a reverse waiver. Juveniles who have been convicted of a prior violent felony such as robbery or first degree assault or other excluded offense like handgun possession are also prohibited from requesting a reverse waiver, as are juveniles who have already been waived and found delinquent. One of the co-defendants in this case was actually 15 at the time of the incident, but his case was not transferred to juvenile court. The 3 remaining defendants are all scheduled for trial in September, and it remains to be seen whether the State will now be more inclined to offer plea deals to a crime other than first degree murder.
The defendant who was recently convicted now must return to the circuit court for sentencing, but under Maryland law the judge will be required to impose a sentence of life. While the state prison system has a fairly liberal parole policy, (violent offenders are often released after serving one half of their sentence) parole is not a forgone conclusion even for young defendants who receive life in prison. Maryland law provides prosecutors the option of seeking life without parole in murder cases, but this requires advance notice to the defendant and a special sentencing trial where the jury must unanimously approve life without parole. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous decision within a reasonable amount of time then a life sentence must be imposed.
This case has stirred up more debate over the fairness of the felony murder doctrine, which allows the jury to convict in a murder case without the State actually proving the defendant intended to kill. First-degree felony murder only requires that the State satisfy three elements, with the first being that the defendant or co-defendant committed a felony such as burglary, arson, carjacking, escape or a sexual offense. The second element is that the defendant killed the victim, and the third element is that the act resulting in the death of the victim occurred during the commission of, or in the immediate escape from the scene of the felony described in the first element. In co-defendant cases such as this one, all participants are liable for the acts of the other co-defendants. It is for this reason that the three other juvenile defendants face the same first-degree murder charge as the one whose actions actually killed the officer.
The felony murder doctrine is often criticized for being overly harsh, as defendants with no intent to kill can face the criminal justice system’s ultimate charge. The flip side of the argument is that a defendant with the malicious intent to commit a felony should be responsible for any harm that a person suffers as a result of his or her decision to commit a crime, even if the harm is unintended. In this case, the felony murder doctrine allowed prosecutors to prove their case without proving the teenager actually intended to run the police officer over with the Jeep. Part of the justification for the felony murder doctrine is that it can be a powerful deterrent, but in reality the deterrent effect is negligible.
The Blog will continue to follow this case and the three other cases resulting from this tragic incident, and will likely post a follow up article in the future. If you have been arrested or charged with a felony in Maryland contact criminal attorney Benjamin Herbst anytime at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation. Benjamin handles robbery, burglary and murder charges in all jurisdictions including Baltimore County. He is also an experienced juvenile attorney who has successfully transferred violent felony cases involving firearms from adult court to juvenile court through reverse waiver motion. More information about juvenile cases and reverse waivers can be found here or by calling Benjamin directly.