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Fifth person charged with first degree felony murder in Sean Taylor case

[Note by Skin Patrol, 05/15/08 2:58 PM EDT ] Redskin Report has an update:

Just after the new arrest was made, it was announced that one suspect has pled guilty.  Venjah Hunte pled guilty to 2nd degree murder and burglary.  Hunte was sentenced to 29 years in jail and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the cases of the other suspects.

My prediction is that the others will follow shortly with plea bargains, assuming prosecutors put those offers on the table, though the admission of Venjah Hunte could close off such an option, since they won't need much more evidence to convict the others.

[Note by Skin Patrol, 05/14/08 4:16 PM EDT ] Here is the video from AP news, I believe:



Per Redskins Insider:

A fifth person has been charged in connection with the shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, a spokesman in the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office said Wednesday.

Timothy Brown, 16, of Fort Myers, Fla., has been charged with first-degree felony murder and armed burglary of an occupied dwelling, according the spokesman, Ed Griffith. Brown was arrested Tuesday and booked into a Lee County jail. It is unclear when he will arrive in Miami. No initial court appearance has yet been set... a sworn statement to the police, one of the defendents, Rivera, said there were five, rather than four, people who drove together from Fort Myers to Taylor's house in Miami on the night of the break in.

This comes after the recent news that the prosecutors in the case will not seek the death penalty for any of the defendants. Ostensibly this applies to the newest defendant, Timothy Brown, as he is the youngest of the group. Acknowledging that his innocence is presumed until a guilty verdict is handed down, if young Brown did participate one can only imagine the sweat he's lost over the course of the past months. If Rivera (and others?) are willing to take the stand and testify to Brown's participation in the act, I wonder how juries will respond to this defendant's refusal to come forward before compelled to do so by investigators.

First degree murders in Florida amount to Capital Felonies, although the state won't seek the death penalty. Florida Statute § 782.04 (1)(a)2(d) reads:

The unlawful killing of a human being:

When committed by a person engaged in the perpetration of, or in the attempt to perpetrate, any:

d. Robbery

Other predicate offenses for felony murder include burglary and home-invasion robbery, so there are actually a few theories the prosecution could proceed on under felony murder. Armed only with the extremely limited legal knowledge attainable by watching Law & Order or taking a 1st year Criminal Law course in Law School, felony murder is a legal concept used to increase the severity of punishment for murders committed (even without premeditation) in the course of some other felonies, precluding assault in some jurisdictions such as Florida (since assault is pretty much always a predicate felony in a murder -- you don't murder people with harsh language).

Felony murder does ratchet up the seriousness of the crime in many places to a capital felony, which carries with it the possibility of a death sentence. The preceding statute lists the punishment as a first degree murder under the capital felony statute § 775.082. That statute reads, in part:

(1) A person who has been convicted of a capital felony shall be punished by death if the proceeding held to determine sentence according to the procedure set forth in s. 921.141 results in findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death, otherwise such person shall be punished by life imprisonment and shall be ineligible for parole.

Since the death penalty is off the books in this case, the minimum sentence available for the defendants (presuming they are all charged with first degree felony murder) is a life in prison with no possibility for parole.

I have nothing invested in a death penalty verdict for any of them, as I think justice prevails under a life sentence. Reasonable minds are free to disagree on that point. I am not a legal expert whatsoever (I'm actually not even a very good law student) but I have to think that the reason the state withdrew the death penalty is because of a lack of aggravating circumstances that would necessitate the death penalty along with the existence of mitigating circumstances that militate against such a verdict. § 921.141 lists those circumstances, which include, aggravating first, though not an exhaustive list:

  1. Prior felonies by defendant and they're on probation
  2. Previously convicted of a capital felony (which seems unlikely, since that means the current felony would need to be committed in prison or after escape) or of felony involving use or threat of violence against others
  3. Defendant knowingly created a risk against a great number of people
  4. Capital felony committed while in the course of a number of felonies, including robbery or burglary (this seems odd, since it would mean the existence of aggravating circumstances in all or virtually all felony murders)
  5. Murder committed in the course of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest
  6. Especial heinousness, atrociousness, or cruelty of crime
  7. Victim was under 12 years of age or disabled
  8. Murder was cold, calculated, and premeditated with no pretense of moral justification

Etc. you get the picture. Mitigating circumstances, again not an exhaustive list:

  1. Defendant has no significant criminal history
  2. Defendant was under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance at time of crime (legal concept, think crime of passion)
  3. Victim consented
  4. Defendant was accomplice to the person who committed capital felony and defendant's participation was relatively minor
  5. Defendant's age
  6. Other circumstances in the victim's history

I guess the previously reported assertion that the prosecution would have to prove premeditation to get the death penalty relates to that particular aggravating circumstance. Some mitigating circumstances exist, notably the age of the main defendant (Rivera, who was 17 at the time of the murder) and the tangential participation of some or all of the others, as they weren't the trigger men.

In any event, the above legal analysis is probably wrong, unhelpful, and certainly miles away from professionally done. It is explicitly amateur, so please don't hold me responsible when some or all of this turns out to be wrong, but that's the best I could do. Hope that clears up felony murder in Florida.