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10.19.10

Teen Murder Trial Nightmare

He had no weapon and committed no violent act, yet he's charged with killing his friend. Constantino Diaz-Duran on the controversial law that could send a Florida teen away for 50 years.

On Tuesday, September 21, school in Polk County, Florida, had been in session for less than a month, but already, William Murphy and his three friends were itching to cut class.

So Murphy, 16, Otilio Rubio, 15, and two other boys headed over to the home of Jose Oyola-Aponte looking to get into some trouble. Murphy's father had warned his son not to hang out with Rubio, who had a juvie rap sheet dating back to age 10. But the boys were childhood friends, and when Murphy—who spent his elementary and middle-school years in private schools—enrolled at the public high school, the two started hanging out again.

Oyola-Aponte, a 37-year-old light technician at nearby Walt Disney World, was in bed with his wife at 11:45 a.m. when the four kids arrived at his house. What unfolded over the next few minutes would end with Rubio dead and Murphy charged with his murder—though Murphy didn't kill Rubio, a fact that is undisputed by defense and prosecution alike.

According to the arrest report filed by Polk County Detective Ivan Navarro, Oyola-Aponte and his wife were were jolted awake by the sound of a hammer smashing through their bedroom window. Oyola-Aponte pulled his wife toward him, and grabbed a .40 caliber semi-automatic Glock handgun from his nightstand. He walked to the foot of the bed, took aim at the young burglars at his window, and fired two shots. One got Rubio in the head. The other hit Murphy in the stomach. The two other teens who were with them fled the scene unwounded, while Murphy stumbled a couple of blocks to a friend’s house for help.

The two who fled were apprehended. Murphy was treated for his wound and soon recovered. But Rubio lay in critical condition for two days at Lakeland Regional Medical Center before finally dying. His death, and the convergence of two Florida laws, would lead to an outcome William Murphy likely never anticipated: He was charged with Rubio's murder.

Florida state law allows homeowners to shoot a person who tries to break into their home. Florida law also lets prosecutors apply murder charges to anyone involved in a felony that results in a death. After Rubio died in his hospital bed, Murphy, who was unarmed and never inside the house, was charged as an adult with second-degree murder under this second law. Oyola-Aponte’s right to self-defense under the first law was undisputed, so he faced no charges on the shooting (though he was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to sell when deputies found the substance in his bedroom).

The two boys who were with Rubio and Murphy also pleaded guilty to burglary and second-degree murder for the death of their friend. But they were charged as minors, and were sentenced last week to a minimum of nine months at a juvenile facility, where they could stay, at most, until they turn 21. Murphy, on the other hand, faces up to 50 years in prison, according to Chip Thullbery, a spokesman for the Florida 10th Judicial Circuit’s State Attorney’s Office.

The felony murder doctrine, explains Paul H. Robinson, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, punishes as murder all deaths caused in the course of a felony—even if the killing is accidental—and applies murder liability not only to the person causing the death, but to all accomplices in the underlying felony. In this case, the actions of the person causing the death, Oyola-Aponte, were lawful because he was defending himself from burglars entering his home.

“That's a risk that a person who commits a crime with others undertakes; if one of their cohorts gets killed, then they're responsible.”

According to Murphy's family and local news reports, this was the teen's first run-in with the law. The arrest report filed by Detective Navarro claims that, after being read his Miranda rights, Murphy confessed to using a hammer to shatter Oyola-Aponte’s window. It was this escalated level of participation that got him the adult charge while his friends were charged as juveniles.

Spokesman Thullbery defends the charges. “Basically, we can charge the crimes that are there, and not just, because someone is younger, not charge the crime.” He adds that “this is not some new law; this theory of prosecution has been around for hundreds of years.” Professor Robinson acknowledges this, but points out that since the mid-20th century, the felony murder rule has been narrowed and restricted by most states. The Model Penal Code, which seeks to standardize penal law across the U.S., “dropped the felony murder rule altogether, but not all states have, and Florida is one of them," says Robinson. "Florida has the very old, sort of the broadest form of the rule.”

The rule was created to deter people from committing felonies because, in the words of spokesman Thullbery, “That's a risk that a person who commits a crime with others undertakes; if one of their cohorts gets killed, then they're responsible.” But, says Robinson, “Most people haven't the slightest idea whether their state has a felony murder rule or not, or if their state has a felony murder rule, if it’s a broad one, or a narrow one. How can the rule produce some kind of deterrent effect when people don't know what the rule is?”

Robinson points out a second problem with the notion that the felony murder rule deters would-be criminals. “The kind of people who are committing the underlying felonies,” he says, “are not rational calculators who are calculating all the odds of getting caught.” John Darley, professor of psychology at Princeton University, agrees. “One rather common theory of criminality,” he explains, “holds that the criminal acts impulsively, so a great deal of crime is done by, for example, somebody who suddenly gets an impulse to go into a house and rob it.”

In the photographs of him in court, Murphy wears the expression of a scared and surprised boy who never imagined his stunt could end with him facing a murder charge. And this, says Robinson, is what makes felony murder laws not just inefficient, but also unjust. You're liable "not just for negligent homicide or even manslaughter," he says. "You're liable for murder. You're treated as if you intended to cause the death when clearly you didn't.”

Thullbery, however, points out that prosecutions under the felony murder rule are not at all rare. “In fact, we have several other second-degree felony murders in the office right now,” he says. And it’s not just in Florida. On Friday, 20-year-old Nasir Salaam of New Jersey received a 30-year sentence for his participation in the armed robbery of a gas station in 2007, where one of his accomplices shot and killed the station owner. In Wisconsin, two college students were charged with felony murder in September after the accidental death of a schoolmate with whom they got into a bar fight.

What makes William Murphy's case different than these ones, of course, is that he didn't lay a hand on the victim he's charged with killing. No one would argue he should walk free after a burglary, but was the law really designed to put away someone in his situation for 50 years?

Professor Darley worries about the impact of an overzealous murder charge on Murphy's life, even if he doesn’t receive the maximum penalty. “It's going to inflict a great deal of harm in his life,” he says, “and it's going to do that by seriously hampering or even eliminating his chances of getting jobs, continuing in school, and so on.” And there’s the risk, he says, that by sending him to prison and detaching him from society, “The way we treat him will in fact create a more dangerous criminal.”

Unfortunately for Murphy, a 16-year-old first-time offender, a few decades in prison with real murderers may teach him a thing or two.

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.