Facing murder, without firing a shot

Death of a police officer in R.I. reignites controversy over little-known charge of felony murder.

The line of mourners poured out the church door and stretched around the block. Hundreds of police officers stood quietly beside family and friends, but the tension was tangible. The unspoken question: How could an off-duty police officer be killed accidentally by fellow officers?

Across town in a jail cell sat a man accused of the murder. Aldrin Diaz never fired a shot, and his gun was not used to kill Officer Cornel Young Jr. But he was instrumental in the tragedy, police say, and so should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Mr. Diaz is charged with felony murder, a little-known law increasingly used from Rhode Island to Nebraska to California. While simple in concept - if someone is killed while you are committing a felony, you can be held responsible for the murder - the law is proving to be controversial in practice.

Such is the case here in working-class Providence, R.I., where the circumstances of Officer Young's death are stirring racial tensions - and raising questions about whether the felony-murder charge is enabling the police to sidestep accountability.

"We have a real concern with prosecutors using felony-murder charges to help police avoid responsibility for their actions," says Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, which monitors human-rights violations by law-enforcement agencies in the US.

Sequence of events

On the night Young was killed, events unfolded in a quick but tragic sequence. After arguing in a restaurant with another patron, Diaz apparently went to his car to get a gun. According to police, he was standing in the parking lot, waving the gun, when two patrolmen arrived on scene.

That's when Young, who'd been eating at the same restaurant, emerged, gun drawn, to help. But the two officers apparently did not recognize Young, an African-American, out of uniform. They shot him when he did not drop his gun.

"It is important to point out that the responsibility for this tragic incident lies with the suspect, Aldrin Diaz, who introduced the use of a firearm into this disturbance," said Providence Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. after the shooting last week.

Shock in some quarters

The arrest of Diaz for felony murder has sent shock waves through the black community here, which believes that race may have been a factor in the patrolmen's split-second decision to fire at Young.

"The African-American community doesn't like it, and the Hispanic community is very confused by it," says the Rev. Marlowe Washington, the Young family's pastor at the Allen A.M.E. Church in Providence. "It has created a lot of rifts here."

Most states have some form of felony murder, which dates from English common law. But with its increased use comes an increase in abuse, say opponents, who believe the law can be used to shield police from responsibility.

"Police have a narrative in their head of who's guilty, who's innocent, and who's likely to be a cop. And that costs African-Americans our lives," says Mr. Jones. "By not charging the police, you are giving a green light to that kind of recklessness."

California has a similar law called the "provocative act murder doctrine," and a controversial trial is in its final week in Solano County. Two teenagers face second-degree murder charges after a rival gang member fatally stabbed their friend. Prosecutors says the two are responsible for the murder because they started the fight that led to his death.

That case, too, has raised pointed questions of racism. The teen who stabbed the victim is white (he served two days in juvenile hall before being released on probation). The victim's friends are Latino.

Prosecutors and district attorneys say the felony-murder law does not unfairly target minorities and should be used to its full advantage "when the facts of a case fall within the law," says Stuart VanMeveren, president of the National District Attorneys Association. "There's always potential for abuse, but it will be caught in the checks and balances of the criminal-justice system."

A case in Arizona

The charge of felony murder varies widely from state to state. For example, Arizona has a fairly expansive definition of what constitutes felony murder and, therefore, uses it a lot.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David R. Cole heard a 1998 felony-murder case, in which Dennis Canion and a female passenger were stopped by a Phoenix police officer for a traffic violation. The officer shot the woman, who was reaching for a gun after Mr. Canion told her to shoot him. A jury found Canion guilty of her murder, and the state sought the death penalty.

But Judge Cole says he sentenced Canion to life in prison because he did not intend to kill her, a key component of Arizona's law.

On death row

That is not the case in Nebraska, where proving intent is not required. Six of the nine men on Nebraska's death row were convicted of felony murder. Recently, state Sen. Ernie Chambers tried to exclude death as a punishment for felony murder. The legislature rejected the bill last week, but Senator Chambers says he will keep fighting. "A person should not be sentenced to die if there was no intent to kill," he says. "It should not be the same as first-degree murder."

Rhode Island does not have the death penalty, but Diaz could face life in prison if he's eventually found guilty of felony murder.

Some wonder, however, if the felony-murder law is an effective deterrent. "The underlying premise is to discourage people from getting involved in violent felonies, but probably a large segment of the population doesn't have a clue that this law exists," says Cole. "That leaves the underlying premise in some doubt."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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