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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE | PERSPECTIVE ON JUVENILE JUSTICE

Tragic Slaying, Tragic Sentencing

February 11, 2001|ROCKY JARAMILLO RUSHING | Rocky Jaramillo Rushing is a legislative consultant on juvenile justice

By upholding three first-degree murder convictions for the 1995 slaying of an Agoura Hills teenager, a state appeals court recently demonstrated how our justice system too often fails to achieve what we all hope is its ultimate goal--justice.

Jimmy Farris, the 16-year-old son of a Los Angeles Police Department officer, was stabbed to death in a brawl inside the backyard fort of a close friend, a confessed pot dealer. According to the prosecution, the death occurred during the attempted theft of marijuana kept inside the fort.

At trial, Jason Holland, then 18, admitted to stabbing Farris. Holland said he used his pocketknife to aid his younger and smaller brother, Micah Holland, who was being beaten. The other defendants didn't know Jason Holland had a knife or that a stabbing had occurred until after the fight.

There is no evidence to suggest that this was anything but a heat-of-battle tragedy. Still, Jason Holland and his co-defendants, also from Agoura Hills, were aggressively prosecuted under the felony murder rule, a barbaric law whose origins date to Elizabethan England. Such was the state of law then that a defendant was not permitted defense witnesses. Those convicted of most felonies, such as burglary and larceny, were hanged.

In 1957, England abolished the felony murder rule. As applied in California, the law holds that all involved in the commission or attempted commission of specified felonies can be charged with first-degree murder if a death occurs as a result of the crime. The mandatory sentence is 25 years to life in prison.

It makes no difference if the killing was unplanned or accidental. Those playing a lesser role in the underlying felony share the same responsibility for the death as the killer. One person is held responsible for the unagreed upon and unforeseen acts of another.

The purpose of creating varying degrees of murder charges is to punish intentional killing more severely than accidental killing. So how is it right that an unplanned death be treated the same as a premeditated, cold-blooded murder?

The felony murder rule is supposed to deter the commission of felonies in a reckless or violent way. But this begs the question: How can an unforeseen or even accidental death be deterred? In one case in which the felony murder rule was applied, the defendant's bad luck was only matched by the severity of his sentence. In People vs. Stamp, the defendant's bad luck was that a witness to his crime was a 60-year-old obese man with a history of heart disease. The witness, apparently overly excited by the robbery, died of a heart attack. The defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder and, like the Agoura Hills teenagers, his conviction was upheld upon appeal.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of similar cases in the law books. Because of intense, long-held criticisms of the felony murder rule, it has been abolished or severely limited in its application in many states. In Michigan (People vs. Aaron), the state Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional, stating that it was unreasonable "to equate the intent to commit a felony with the intent to kill."

An attempt last session in the California Legislature to soften the harshness of the law was defeated after strong opposition by the influential district attorneys' lobby. In May 1996, Jason Holland, Brandon Hein, then 18, and 17-year-old Tony Miliotti were found guilty by a Malibu jury and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Micah Holland, 15, received the lesser sentence of 25 years to life.

Before the killing, these young men could have hardly been considered heavy-duty criminals. Past brushes with the law reflected what they were, misguided middle-class teens finding escape in alcohol and drugs. The teenagers took their case to the second appellate district, claiming, in part, that their sentences were cruel and unusual. The court of appeal reduced Miliotti's sentence to 15 years to life based on his limited role in the killing (Miliotti stood at the door of the fort and did not participate in the fatal fight). The convictions and sentences for the Holland brothers and Hein were upheld.

Weighing the "nature of the offense and the nature of the offender," the court reasoned that the defendants' drug and alcohol use, their history of minor crimes and the Farris killing justified life sentences. The basic test for cruel and unusual punishment is "whether the punishment is so disproportionate to the crime for which it is inflicted that is shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity."

The court's ruling has left me and many others shocked and offended. The Farris killing was stupid. It was tragic. It has left the many who loved him in great pain. Those responsible must be held accountable. However, the harsh sentences in this case are a tragedy unto themselves. The court's decision shows that although we are a "nation of laws" we are not always a just nation.

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