Why Intent Doesn’t Matter in Some Murder Cases
Mar. 29, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Nedra Dodds, a doctor who did a poor job performing cosmetic surgery on her patients, had two patients die on the operating table. She has been charged with a crime. Not professional malpractice. Not negligence. Instead, she and her assistant have been charged with felony murder predicated on aggravated battery.
The district attorney said that while the deaths were not intentional, the charges reflect the actions the surgeons took. There are certain standards of care required of medical personnel, and often if we hear the standards aren’t met, we hear about what’s called malpractice suit in a civil setting,” Reynolds said. “For it to rise up to criminal cases, it has to be a little bit more involved.
That’s awfully convenient for prosecutors, because it means that they can take away from the jury what would normally be the central question in any murder case: did the defendant intend to actually kill anyone? Instead, because Georgia law allows for a murder conviction when any felony is the “proximate cause” of a death, the jury won’t even have to consider the fact that doctors often strongly prefer to keep their patients alive.
Unfortunately, when there is a death, whether the defendant in Georgia (and many other jurisdictions) faces murder or some lesser charge depends almost entirely on the discretion of the prosecutor.
Here, “Doctor” Dodds (her license has been revoked) is a pretty unlikable figure. She lied about her admitting privileges at hospitals. She lied about what boards she was on. She was wildly incompetent, and when one her patients went into cardiac arrest, she waited 22 minutes to call 911.
So it’s no surprise that people would be calling for her head. But treating accidental killers the same as real murderers creates perverse results.
Imagine for a minute that there is someone you hate. Someone you loathe. The reason isn’t important. You scrape up your money and spend months carefully planning the murder, writing daily in your murder journal. Then you stab the subject of your hatred a hundred times in the eye with a screwdriver. You’re charged with murder. The penalty in Georgia? Life in prison.
Now let’s imagine that you’re 17-years-old and you encourage a friend to steal a sandwich from an old man. Your friend comes up behind him, puts his finger to his back, and demands the sandwich. The old man dies of a heart attack chasing your friend to get his sandwich back. You’re charged with felony murder. The penalty in Georgia? Life in prison.
The only thing the 17-year-old can hope for is the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in your favor. But as the Supreme Court of the United States has mentioned in other contexts, noblesse oblige is a crappy little shield for the average person.
So the end result is that our system is failing to draw an important distinction between those who mean to kill and those who don’t. The theory behind the rule, as recounted in Reason, is that
[a] person who has chosen to commit armed robbery, rape or kidnapping has chosen to do something with a strong possibility of causing the death of an innocent person. That choice makes it morally justified to convict the person of murder when that possibility happens.
Morally justified, maybe. But does it actually make any sense? In theory, we punish people for just a small list of reasons. We’re hoping to deter bad conduct, to protect society at large, to rehabilitate the offender, to “balance the scales” and to hurt the offender because it makes us feel good to inflict harm on bad people.
But the felony murder rule doesn’t actually meet any of those goals. People who rob the elderly of their sandwiches with a finger gun through their coat are unlikely to be deterred by the faint possibility of a death. That’s just moral luck. And it would be hard to argue that people who kill others by accident are as dangerous as those who do it on purpose. Rehabilitation is less necessary when someone doesn’t necessarily enjoy killing others, and because we generally assign less moral blame to accidental acts, there’s less of an argument to “balance the scales” with a hefty punishment. What’s left is vengeance: The warm fuzzy feeling that people get when a bad person has bad things happen to them. Often times, this is the driving force behind ever-enhanced penalties. People recoil at the thought of a bad person getting out of jail to live a happy life after they’ve ruined someone else’s. Think of how much energy people devote to bitching about prisoners having access to gym facilities and cable television.
Ultimately, the felony murder rule doesn’t exist because it has some sort of meaningful deterrent effect. As Reason reported, it doesn’t. It exists because sometimes lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors have trouble distinguishing between those they’re mad at and those they’re afraid of. And until they learn that distinction, there will be countless more who suffer needlessly severe punishments because it makes the powers that be feel important.