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Justice demands a look-back at felony-murder cases

The SJC decision in the Pope case didn’t address the need for systemic reform.

Joseph Jabir Pope (right) listened as the Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in Commonwealth v. Joseph Pope. Offering him support was James Watson, whose murder charges were dropped after he served 41 years in prison.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It was a good day for Joseph Jabir Pope, who Tuesday won the right to a new trial under a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court after serving 37 years in prison for murder.

The court did the right thing by Pope and reversed a nearly 40-year-old wrong, finding prosecutors had withheld key exculpatory evidence at the time of his trial. But the SJC never reached a broader issue raised by the case — whether the high court should demand a look-back at dozens of other felony-murder cases decided before a 2017 SJC decision, the so-called Brown case, that narrowed the definition and circumstances in which what is known as the joint doctrine can be applied.


Pope’s case was among the nearly two dozen felony-murder convictions examined by the Globe Spotlight Team involving defendants sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for cases in which they never wielded a weapon and never inflicted bodily harm, but were charged with first degree murder under the old doctrine that held them equally culpable if they were a party to a violent felony.

Pope was accused of participating in a 1984 armed robbery during which Efrain DeJesus was shot to death. Floyd Hamilton was convicted of the shooting, and Pope has long maintained he only went along to buy drugs at the Dorchester home and had no intention to rob DeJesus or any role in the killing.

The key witness against Pope was Efrain’s brother, Bienvenido DeJesus, and a memo written at the time by the assistant district attorney who went to the crime scene that night points to numerous inconsistencies in the case. That memo was never disclosed to Pope’s trial lawyer.

“We conclude that the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure of this evidence — which goes to the credibility of the Commonwealth’s key and only percipient witness, with whom this case rises and falls — constituted a violation of its [ethical] obligation to disclose all exculpatory evidence and prejudiced the defendant,” Justice David Lowy wrote. Lowy added, “We . . . do not reach the defendant’s argument regarding Brown and the felony-murder rule.’’


Yes, the court punted on the felony-murder issue. Pope is currently free while awaiting word on whether Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden will retry the case. “We continue to review the SJC’s decision and are committed to informing Mr. Pope and his defense counsel of our determination without unnecessary delay,” Hayden’s office said in a statement issued Thursday.

But advocates for other prisoners stuck in the legal limbo created by the Brown decision aren’t discouraged by the SJC’s latest ruling. There are other cases in the criminal justice pipeline expected to make their way up to the high court, begging for a more sweeping solution.

When the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in that 2017 decision that the felony-murder rule had caused “convictions of murder in the first degree that are not consonant with justice,” he opened the door to just such legal challenges.

The right case at the right time might allow a new court majority to revisit the issue. But it’s not the only avenue to redress this unfinished bit of justice.

Hayden’s statement pointed to another option, noting, “The review of felony-murder convictions must not be piecemeal or inconsistent. This requires a legislative solution, rather than a county-by-county response.”


His office does maintain an Integrity Review Bureau, which reviews requests dealing with possible miscarriages of justice.

But a legislative fix is exactly the path taken by California. A bill modifying the state’s felony-murder law going forward, along the lines of the Massachusetts SJC decision, also allowed for retroactive resentencing. When the law went into effect in 2019, it was estimated that some 800 inmates would be eligible for resentencing.

A recent study by The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution, which advocates for reforms to felony-murder statues in states where conviction is still likely to result in a life-without-parole sentence, found those convictions fall disproportionately on people of color. The figure was 80 percent in Pennsylvania in 2020. In Cook County, Ill., 80 percent of those sentenced for felony murder between 2010 and 2020 were Black, and, in 2021, 54 percent of those with felony-murder convictions in Minnesota were Black and 10 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native.

The results were consistent with Spotlight’s look-back findings. Of the 23 cases they documented, all but one involved Black or Hispanic men, adding a racial justice component to an already compelling case for change.

That there are people sitting in the state’s prisons today who simply should not be there is shameful. Finding a more systemic remedy than waiting for the right legal case to come along grows ever more essential.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.