Criminal law

Opinion: The crime of first degree murder should be removed from Maryland’s criminal code


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Written by Margaret Martin Barry

The writer is a member of the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County. She is the founder and former director of the Re-Entry Clinic at American University in Washington School of Law.

One spring evening in Prince George’s County, David is called by a friend saying she needs help tracking down some friends who have hurt her. He refused. Then I called my friend David Keith for help; He agreed and said he would meet her.

Keith called David and convinced him to go with him. When they met her, she was drunk and was brandishing a gun. They try to talk to her, and David gets her to call her mom. But she was so loud and still brandishing a gun when she made the call, the next thing David knew, Keith had shot her, nearly hitting him in the act. Then Keith told David to take her gun.

Frightened by what Keith was clearly capable of, David took the gun and fled. David was 16 years old at the time; Keith was 18 years old. The two boys were tried and found guilty of murder and of using a handgun in the commission of a felony. Both boys received the same sentence of life plus 20 years, which were the consecutive sentences.

To prove first-degree murder, the most extreme form of murder, the state must prove that the defendant intended to kill, was aware of that intent, and had time to think about that intent.

Except when the state doesn’t have to prove intent — ever.

In fact, many people languish in Maryland prisons for decades or their entire lives without ever intending to kill. They are serving sentences for first-degree murder because the law tells prosecutors not to worry about proving intent to kill; If the defendant was involved in one of a Specific list of feloniesIt does not matter if the murder was planned or the defendant did it or even knew about the murder at all.

Despite our very strict penalties for felonies leading to murder, the theory goes that if a person dies while committing, for example, a robbery, burglary or arson, everyone Those involved in that crime should know that death may occur. Premeditation and intent go out the window. Accident, reaction, or intention to kill another member of the group, all result in the worst punishment imposed by our laws.

Keep in mind that a person who brutally attacks another person, or who acts with an impulse to kill another person, or who recklessly ignores the possibility of death, does not face the same punishment. They are charged with assault, second-degree murder, or manslaughter.

Women and girls who are forced to participate in crimes by abusive partners also fall prey to murder charges. California poll 2018 Of the 82 women serving life in prison for first degree murder in California, 72% were found not to have been the actual perpetrators of the murder.

Although the principle of homicide inherently raises constitutional concerns, its application to children is not tenable. As with David, the child can be charged with first degree murder when the co-defendant commits the murder. This law contradicts US Supreme Court precedent regarding child offenders. Relying on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, in Roper v. Simmons, graham vs florida, And Miller vs. AlabamaThe Court decided that youth must be taken into consideration when judging child offenders.

The premise of these decisions is that young people are less likely to be blamed than adults for the stage they are in in the process of their brain development. Indeed, in Graham’s case, Judge Kennedy stated that in the case of felony murder, children are excused twice from the guilt because it is so Even more likely They will consider the risks that may accompany their actions more than adults. It is worth noting that while the court decided these cases only for those who were defined as juvenile offenders, the science on which they are based He spoke of a diminished developmental ability to anticipate consequences that manifests itself through the age of 25 years.

And the United States remains virtually the only Western country that still recognizes the legal principle that makes it possible to “impose the most serious penalties known to the law on whoever commits a murder.” accidental Murder.” England abolished the crime of murder in 1957, and this principle had never existed in France or Germany.

Maryland’s use of felony murder, either as a tool for prosecutors to pressure people to file petitions or to obtain first-degree murder convictions because causation and intent are not required, is particularly insidious as it is applied to blacks entering the system. Maryland has the distinction of being among the worst states when it comes to incarcerating black people More than twice the national average. Murder fuels the worst tendencies, allowing for life imprisonment or life without parole despite not having the level of guilt we think of for such harsh punishments.

For criminal laws to be respected, they must be considered just and proportionate to the crime. Felony murder fails to meet this standard because it punishes an act that the defendant never committed or that the defendant did not intend. It is “justified” to say that those involved in the aforementioned felonies should know that death is a possibility, and that severe penalties will deter engaging in such felonies. The latter ignores the severe penalties for basic offences, which, if considered, would be deterrent in themselves. The prior hypothesis to predict possible consequences It has not been proven.

With the General Assembly convening early in its 2023 session, there is once again an opportunity to get rid of this unfair provision in our laws. The felony of murder shall be removed from Maryland law by deleting subsection (a)(4) of MD Crim. Law §2-201, and by providing for re-sentencing on the basis of the original felony only for those convicted of a felony murder in the past. To do so would remove from our laws this imaginary murderous intent and the unjust judgments it reinforces. Any legislation moving in this direction should be supported.


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