A lot has been written lately about the strange case of Ryan Rolle, a young man who is currently serving a life sentence for felony murder in Florida. Not only was Ryan not the killer of the teenage girl who died in a drug robbery gone wrong, he was not even present at the scene of the crime. He had no role in planning or carrying out the event, nor did he cover up for the actual killers afterwards.
And yet he sits in jail today, convicted for the crime of felony murder because he lent some friends his car beforehand and apparently knew at the time that they were planning to carry out the robbery. There has been some national controversy about this, questioning how a young man with no prior criminal record could end up in jail for life under such circumstances. But a closer look reveals that his conviction was not a stretch of legal doctrine at all.
The felony murder rule states that participants in a felony that results in a murder (even the murder of one of the felony participants) can be tried for the murder as if they actually committed it. The law is designed to deter violent felonies by spreading the responsibility for deaths resulting from them among all the participants. The reasoning behind the law is that, but for the commission of the felony, the murder would not have occurred. Murder is a foreseeable result of such crimes, and people who commit them should be held responsible for the results of their actions.
The felony murder rule makes sense in most cases. It does not take a genius to figure out that violent crimes such as armed robbery can result in unintended deaths for which the robber is culpable. But what strikes me as utterly amazing is how so many of the people who have rallied to Ryan Rolle’s defense seem to be ignorant of the law. They point to Ryan’s case as a miscarriage of justice, the result of an overzealous prosecutor stretching the law and imposing a draconian sentence given Ryan’s relatively minor role in the actual crime.
But the fact is that accomplices are convicted of felony murder all the time in the United States. If Ryan knew at the time he lent his friends the car that they were planning on using it to commit a robbery, he aided and abetted the crime. He was an accomplice under the law.
Ryan’s case stands out mostly for the ineffectiveness of his counsel at the time. It seems Ryan and his court-appointed attorneys also believed that he was not sufficiently involved to be covered under the felony murder rule. That belief is mostly based on their ignorance of the law and its far-reaching potential consequences in cases like this. Had they been more aware of the law and what it actually meant, they probably would have taken the plea deal offered to them by the prosecution. At this point, Ryan would probably be home by now, not sitting in jail with a lifetime of imprisonment ahead of him.
But Ryan is not alone in his ignorance of the law. Cases such as these seem to be popping up all over the place these days, especially among young people. Often a young person may not have intended to commit a crime but wants to be cool with the “in” crowd. They go along with foolish acts believing that if they do not actually commit the crime, they will not be responsible. But such ignorance is inexcusable. How is it that most teenagers have no problem listing the Billboard top 50 and yet have so little understanding of the laws that govern the country they live in that they could fall into such traps?
At best this ignorance points to a decline in civic education. The basics of citizenship were once a cornerstone of the U.S. educational system. Now those basics seem to be lost amid a race to individualism without respect for the social good. We live in a society of laws in which there are affirmative duties of citizenship. We have a responsibility to respect the rights of our fellow citizens. This means not only that we should not violate laws ourselves, but we should not be helping others violate them either. This seems to be a strange sticking point for some people, especially in the aftermath of crimes. Covering up for a crime committed by a friend or associate after the fact is in fact part of the crime itself. The law is clear about this, and yet time and again people get caught up in these situations where they become unwitting accessories for crimes committed by others.
The broader point here is that paying attention to the laws, getting to know the Constitution and the laws of the state in which one resides is part of Citizenship 101. No one is proposing that the average person become a legal scholar or jurist. But knowing the basics is certainly not too much to ask in a country in which the laws are generally well considered and consistently applied. In fact, as the cases of Ryan Rolle and others demonstrate, knowledge of the law is the price of freedom.
Some people may argue that there is a blurry line between merely knowing about a crime and not reporting it and actually participating in a cover-up of the crime. That may be true, but it is understood that aiding and abetting a crime can also make one culpable; it logically follows that one should stay as far away from people who commit crimes as possible. Don’t associate with them. After all, one doesn’t actually have to touch a wild dog to wind up sharing its fleas. Merely letting it in the house may be sufficient.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.