If you live in Southern Illinois, you’ve probably heard about the Gaege Bethune trial. There are many unknown facts in this case, but if you’re like me, you have formed an opinion on what could have happened to Pravin Varaguese. You probably know what outcome you believe is just. And we can probably all agree that in America, the punishment should fit the crime.
There’s one thing that isn’t so clear though: felony murder. I’m a senior law student, but I didn’t understand felony murder until I did some research. What I found was disturbing — in Illinois, you can be charged with first-degree murder without having killed anyone.
Gaege Bethune has been accused of first-degree felony murder. Although they hold the exact same sentence, first-degree felony murder and first-degree murder have some very important differences.
Regular first-degree murder means that a person planned, and intentionally killed, another person. First-degree felony murder, however, doesn’t require planning. It doesn’t require intent. It doesn’t even require that the accused was at fault for the murder.
According to Illinois law, an individual could be convicted of murder if someone died during the commission of a felony, even if the individual did not intend for a death to occur. (This rule has been applied broadly to cases in which individuals had no knowledge a murder had occurred.) Simply being connected to a felony crime in some way, however small the connection, allows the state to charge an individual with murder. An individual can go to prison on the taxpayer’s dollar, for first-degree murder, even if that individual didn’t kill anyone. How is that possible?
Felony murder is easier to understand with an example:
In Illinois in 2008, three teens broke into a home while two friends waited outside. A person inside the home, surprised by the burglars, shot and killed one of the boys. The shooter wasn't prosecuted for the killing because he acted in self-defense, but two of the teenage boys were charged with first-degree murder.
The reasoning is this: These teenagers are bad enough to steal a car, so they’re bad enough to be locked up for first degree murder. If we charge them with first-degree murder, it will deter others from committing these crimes.
The felony murder rule originated in English courts in the mid-thirteenth century. England, India, Canada, Northern Ireland and Australia, whose laws were also formed from English courts, have all abolished the felony murder rule stating that it is unjust. Other countries have never had such a law.
The United States is slowly starting to abolish felony murder. Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan have abolished felony murder. Other states, with support from both Republicans and Democrats, are currently considering an end to felony murder.
Illinois, however, has one of the broadest felony murder rules in the United States, often affecting juveniles who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You may believe felony murder is a good rule, and that it deters criminals from committing crimes. You may believe all criminals deserve a harsh sentence. I find it unlikely that criminals are deterred by the felony murder rule. Like me, they probably don’t understand felony murder. Some aren’t aware that felony murder exists at all.
I too believe that criminals should be held accountable for their crimes. But does stealing a car deserve the same punishment as first-degree murder? What about a fist fight between two teenagers?
There are times when we are faced with terrible tragedies. It’s normal for us to wish to hold someone accountable. That’s exactly how it should be. But individuals should be held accountable for crimes they commit. Nobody should be charged with first degree murder if they didn’t kill anyone — when they never could have imagined someone would die. I challenge you to put the opinions of others out of your mind. Consider how you may feel if this rule affected someone you knew. Would you feel it was just if that person was charged with murder for burglarizing a store? Stealing a car? Getting in a fight?
Many things in the Gaege Bethune case do not sit right with me, but one thing is for sure — the punishment should fit the crime, and that is not the case with Illinois’ felony murder rule.