Several district attorneys said Thursday that a new law would be the best way to address potential injustices in which people who never killed anyone are serving lifetime sentences under “felony murder” rules that have since been abolished.
“A legislative fix is the most appropriate step to addressing the matter of individuals convicted of felony murder,” Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden said in response to a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report about the issue. “This would provide a statewide framework to equitably address these cases, where there is currently no legal avenue to provide relief.”
In the meantime, his office’s Integrity Review Bureau “is prepared to review requests from any individual who believes that they received a fundamentally unfair sentence” in Suffolk County, Hayden said in a statement, referring to the panel created in 2019 that investigates past convictions for miscarriages of justice.
The Spotlight report published Sunday highlighted the stories of people sentenced to life in prison without hope for parole, even though they killed no one. They were convicted under the state common law of the time, which said that if someone died during the commission of certain serious felonies, everyone involved in the underlying crime could be on the hook for first-degree murder — even participants who inflicted no violence on the victim and may have never intended to hurt anyone. The penalty for first-degree murder is automatic life in prison without parole.
The Spotlight analysis identified nearly two dozen people who fell into this category, including Joseph Jabir Pope, 69, who last month argued before the state’s highest court that his felony murder conviction should be overturned and that he deserves a new trial, after serving 37 years in prison.
Reporters also found that, in some cases, the actual killer took a plea bargain and got a lighter sentence than the individual convicted of felony murder and given life without parole.
In 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court, in the landmark case of Commonwealth vs. Timothy Brown, narrowed the felony murder rule, deciding that from that date forward, no one could be convicted of felony murder unless prosecutors proved the defendant had murderous intent.
The SJC ruling was not retroactive, however, and did not apply to people already convicted under the old felony murder rule. The court said in its decision that closed cases may have been handled differently if prosecutors knew they had to prove murderous intent to secure a murder conviction.
The organization of public defenders also endorsed legislative reforms, and offered their services to help those convicted under the old rules.
“Public defenders would support any legislation making the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision abolishing felony murder retroactive,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “We also stand ready and willing to represent any person seeking to have a conviction under this draconian theory of murder overturned.”
Candidates running for the state’s top prosecutor spots are also weighing in on this issue.
A legislative fix “is the best remedy because it applies to everyone caught up in the injustice of not making the felony murder decision retroactive. But it’s not the only remedy,’’ said Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who is challenging Hayden for Suffolk County district attorney. “While we wait for legislative action, district attorneys should not sit on their hands.”
Arroyo said that if elected he would use the tools already made available through the Legislature, which includes resentencing. That requires an agreement with both the district attorney and the defense attorney, and an assent by a judge.
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said in a statement that he “would certainly consider taking a look at any proposed bills that address parole eligibility.”
Rahsaan Hall, a civil rights lawyer running against Cruz for Plymouth DA, said, “There should be a legislative fix precisely because the criminal legal system has for too long paid far more attention to finality than to justice.”
State Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Boston Democrat, proposed a bill that she said would give prosecutors the ability to address unjust felony murder convictions.
“Defendants who are sitting in prison today for actions that are no longer considered to be felony murder should have their sentences vacated or reduced,” Fluker Oakley said. “My bill . . . would empower our prosecutors to ask a court to reevaluate convictions like these after injustices in our law have been rectified.”
The bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which has set an April 15 deadline to either recommend the bill for passage or to squash it, said Fluker Oakley.
Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III said there were “good reasons the court did not make the Brown decision retroactive,” but said lingering injustices are best addressed through new legislation.
“If it appears that justice was not done in a prior felony murder conviction, a defendant should have the opportunity to have the case reviewed,” Quinn said in a statement. “This should be done on a case-by-case basis.”
Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey agrees that any sweeping change will have to come from the Legislature.
“A case-by-case examination is the more difficult course, but is likely the wiser path,” Morrissey said.