A couple of weeks ago, two high school girls in Hephzibah, GA, just outside of second-tier city Augusta, set up a fistfight over what Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree called “high school drama”. It more or less immediately turned into a brawl, with fists, cars, knives and clubs being used as weapons. An 18-year-old high school dropout, Demajhay Bell, was stabbed in the neck and died two days later.Now, Richmond County DA Ashley Wright has charged nine people with felony murder in connection with Bell’s death.
Felony murder, for people who don’t read tons of crime novels, is a little problematic: what it means is that you started or participated in an action that led to someone else’s death. Usually, we see it used against criminals who participate in gang violence and home invasions: homeowner ends up dead, nobody’s sure which invader fired the gun, charge’em all and make’em deal. Or, homeowner kills invader, others get away, charge’em all with their friend’s death.
These are uses of the charge that kind of make sense, especially as a deterrent: even getaway drivers sitting in the car during the invasion can get tagged with this. Though it does raise a question of actual culpability: what if the getaway driver really doesn’t know they’re a getaway driver? His friends con him into thinking he’s taking them to pick up a bag of weed or whatever, and someone ends up dead, and he ends up in prison for life for murder. Typically, you have to have intent or mens rea to be indicted of a crime, and this use of felony murder goes against this fundamental legal principle. Here’s a story from Gainesville, GA where the other already-convicted defendants are trying to tell the court that their getaway driver had no idea crimes were transpiring. Here’s a story from the Pennsylvania state legislature about a potential change to the law.
Back in Augusta, most of these people are getting charged because Wright thinks they know who stabbed Bell, and he’s using the felony murder charge as leverage to make them talk. And while this might well work, the question is whether it’s just. I don’t know enough about the details of the fight (you can go look up cell phone videos of it on LiveLeak, but I sure don’t want to) to ascertain how close these people who have been charged are to Bell’s death. The CNN article doesn’t tell me if the two girls who got in the fistfight—you know, “high school drama”—have been charged with felony murder. What really makes me curious is Roundtree’s final statement: “It was a series of events that led to it. It wasn’t just one incident of a violent act against an individual,” he told WRDW. “This was a coordinated, conscious effort.” What was, precisely? Where’s the causal link from the “high school drama” to the “coordinated, conscious effort”? I’ll follow this story and see whether I can find out.
If we consider this type of story from the perspective of crime fiction, it can become much more interesting. Let’s say I’m Fistfight Girl 1, a basically decent kid with some fairly typical high school drama, which includes Fistfight Girl 2, someone significantly more downscale than my college-bound self, and who has a conflict with me that she’s mostly made up but has some link to some guy who likes me and who she likes. Me, I just want her to go away, but she keeps bugging me, and my dad gives me what seems like good advice: “She keeps challenging you to a fight? You’ve done kung fu for ten years, and you’re on the basketball team, and that girl is on the fast-food diet and is just mouthy. A couple of punches ought to shut her up.”
So you arrange it, meet at high noon on neutral ground. The drama of the story is the lead-up to what you think ought to be a fairly short and successful confrontation, but you’ve never been in a fistfight outside the dojo before, and your kung fu training is all about not using violence when it’s not necessary, so you’re ethically conflicted and maybe a little nervous because that girl crazy. You show up: a bunch of her downscale friends are there. Trash-talking ensues, but you find that Zen spot inside you and say “Let’s get down to business”. And you do, and we spend a couple of pages contrasting the details of your fight with your inner thoughts. You can do this.
And then all hell breaks loose, as some conflict you had no idea even existed breaks out. You’re on the college prep track and keep away from people like this on purpose, and suddenly they’re waving weapons and someone’s driving a car through the crowd and WTF? The story would be great if you figured out that your opponent had no idea about this either, and you help her get away from it. Back at home, you’re hyperventilating, and then the cops show up and arrest you for murder. You don’t know the victim, you have no idea who might have killed him because you were focused on getting Fistfight Girl 2 out of there, and you don’t even know what felony murder is.
The question is, what’s the resolution here? I’ll follow up on the real and fictional story as I obtain more information.