When Tayla Mayo received a warrant in the mail two years ago for her son’s arrest, she drove the high schooler straight to Quincy District Court to clear up the situation. But Mayo was stunned when court officers took 18-year-old Jaivon Harris away in handcuffs and charged him with murder the following day.
Mayo, 39, initially struggled to understand how police reports and prosecutor arguments that clearly pointed to another teenager as the killer, could implicate her son in the death of 17-year-old Nathan Paul.
“If the paperwork said otherwise, it would hurt me. But I would say to my son, ‘You were ... wrong here,’” Mayo told the Globe. “But I read it ... and there’s just no way that this is justice.”
Soon, it became clear: Under Massachusetts’s common law theory of joint venture, prosecutors’ assertion that Harris gave a gun to the shooter in the botched robbery that led to Paul’s death was sufficient for him to be accused of murder — and held just as responsible as the alleged gunman, 19-year-old Keniel Diaz-Romero.
Harris’s attorney Christopher Malcolm, however, argued there was no conclusive evidence that Harris provided the gun, and said in his motion to dismiss the murder charge that prosecutors ”failed to prove the defendant participated in any meaningful way ... or otherwise knew this shooting was going to happen.”
Even though prosecutors agree Diaz-Romero pulled the trigger, Harris, now 20, still faces life in prison with the possibility of parole, and joins the hundreds of other joint venturers charged with murder without having wielded a weapon.
Some argue the punishment fits the crime, that all defendants should be held equally responsible for their plan to kill, regardless of who pulled the trigger. However, a group of legislators and activists have drafted a bill that would distinguish between killer and accomplice, punishing those who aid or abet a murder before it takes place with up to 25 years in prison, rather than a life sentence.
“The person who committed the incident is much more likely to plead down and then get a sentence that allows them to [seek] parole and, many times, to get out of jail before the person who was the joint venturer,” said state Representative Russell Holmes, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Just because you fight your hardest in court should not mean that you are now sentenced greater than the person who actually perpetrated the murder. Just on fairness, I think that is wrong to do.”
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, called the proposal “a step in the wrong direction,” and stressed that joint venture gives juries discretion in whether to hold an accomplice as responsible as the perpetrator of the crime, and said the goal of the legal precedent is intended to “hold those responsible who share an intent with another offender” to kill.
“A law that would negate decades of case law in this area would prevent the criminal justice system from holding those accountable who play a meaningful and thoughtful part in murder,” Gulluni said in a statement.
Proponents of the bill, however, say it could help reduce mass incarceration among low-income communities of color. Research indicates joint venture is disproportionately applied to Black and brown defendants, and a New York Times investigation in 2022 into a similar legal practice in the United Kingdom found that Black defendants are three times as likely to be prosecuted in joint venture cases as white defendants.
“If Massachusetts is to be a state that is fighting against racial disparity, then they really have no choice but to address the joint venture laws, and [apply that change] retroactively,” said Alexandra Bailey, senior campaign strategist for The Sentencing Project. Massachusetts is among a handful of states to mandate life sentences for murder convictions, rather than offering a range in sentence length, giving judges little discretion in whether to sentence the killer more severely than their accomplices.
In 2017, the state’s highest court narrowed the felony murder law, ruling that defendants in fatal crimes can no longer be convicted of first degree murder without proof that they set out to seriously harm someone, or knew their actions would likely be deadly. However, the ruling was not retroactive, and did not apply to accomplices in other kinds of murders, such as premeditated or excessively violent killings.
In the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2017 ruling, justices maintained that while a person should not be held accountable for a murder they did not know or expect to happen, defendants should be held responsible for murders committed by an associate “where the defendant knowingly participate[d] in the crime,” meaning they shared the same intentions as the killer.
However, proving shared intent is not always straightforward, advocates of the legislative change say, and research indicates that juries are more inclined to assume that accomplices shared the same intentions as the killer when the defendants are people of color.
Caitlin Glass, a Boston University Law professor, who testified in support of the bill at hearings last summer, said a critical problem with the joint venture legal theory is that it “leaves a lot more room for racial bias to fill in the gaps” when prosecutors are deciding whether to charge someone with murder. The same kind of bias, she said, can also affect jurors as they debate how responsible to hold someone for a murder they participated in, but did not commit.
She pointed to a study of mock juries published last year in the Denver Law Review concluding that jurors “automatically” assumed Black and Latino male defendants were acting as a group with shared intent, while white male defendants were acting individually.
Glass also said lawmakers should consider the “due process issues” inherent to joint venture. Defendants are often left in the dark about how best to advocate for themselves, she said, because prosecutors are not required to say which defendant they plan to try as the killer until the trial begins.
“Plenty of people think, ‘I know I didn’t kill the person, so I’m definitely not going to be convicted of murder,’” she explained. “And then it becomes this complicated legal mechanism where they actually can be convicted of murder without having killed anyone.”
The proposal was conceived in close partnership with We Are Joint Venture, whose members comprise dozens of men incarcerated at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk and are also part of longtime prison advocacy group the African American Coalition Committee.
Julian Green, one of the cofounders of We Are Joint Venture, said the impact of being labeled a murderer also ripples beyond his own life to adversely affect his family. According to court records, Green, then 19, agreed to his codefendant’s plan to fire shots into the home, but did not fire the fatal shot. Green’s codefendant, who prosecutors argued was the actual shooter, was found not guilty at trial, while Green was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in 2010.
“My daughter had a lot of questions for me, and her first question was: ‘Dad, who did you kill?’” said Green, 35, recalling the period in prison when he finally started to become close to his daughter.
“When I told her that I didn’t take nobody’s life, she was like, ‘What are you talking about? I thought you were in here for murder?’” he continued. He added that his daughter lived “with a lot of shame” until he was able to explain to her what joint venture means.
“For family members, even community members, once they see us as murderers, it’s hard for them to really get away from that because they don’t think the system would label us murderers when we never killed anybody,” Green said.
He and other advocates hope the bill, which was sent for further study this past week, will change that perception while still ensuring accountability for every participant in a deadly crime.
“Sometimes there’s a misconception that joint venturers don’t want to take responsibility... but this bill isn’t a get out of jail free card,” Green said. “We’re saying: Hold us accountable for our own wrongs. Just don’t take our lives for a murder that we didn’t do.”