When six Chicago teenagers piled into a stolen car on Tuesday and drove an hour to steal another car from a home in Gurnee, that was a serious crime deserving of serious punishment, regardless of the ages of the offenders.
That said, we believe the Lake County state’s attorney’s office went too far — following a state law that goes too far — in charging five of the teenagers with murder after the alleged auto theft went awry and the sixth teenager was shot and killed.
It was the Gurnee homeowner, a licensed gun owner who said he felt threatened, who pulled the trigger, not the five teens. But an overly broad Illinois law allows prosecutors to charge suspects with murder if anyone — even one of the perpetrators — dies during the commission of another serious crime.
Our hearts are not breaking for the five teens, who are being held in juvenile detention in Vernon Township. One or more of them had previous run-ins with the law, and it’s because they were up to no good — allegedly — that their friend, 14-year-old Jaquan Swopes, is dead.
They are morally responsible for Swopes’ death even if the legal charge of murder is inappropriate.
But Illinois’ felony murder law, unlike similar laws in other states, goes too far in its notion of what constitutes murder for purposes of charging, and it should be revised.
It makes perfect sense to us, for example, that if four people rob a store and one of the robbers shoots the store’s owner, all four robbers could be charged with murder. Only one robber pulled the trigger, but the other three were the killer’s willing accomplices.
It makes considerably less sense, to our thinking, that if the store owner pulls a gun and kills one of the four robbers, the other three robbers could be charged with their companion’s murder. It was the store owner, acting in self-defense, who fired the gun. And none of the robbers, obviously, were the store owner’s accomplices.
In the same way, charging the five teens with murder in Swopes’ death is a stretch. It would have been enough to charge them with other serious crimes, beginning with felony auto theft, that carry their own stiff — but more proportionate — penalties.
“They didn’t kill anyone, they didn’t intend to kill anyone, they didn’t know that anyone would be killed,” says Steven Drizin, a clinical law professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “It’s not murder. Except in Illinois it is.”
Illinois’ overly broad felony murder law allowed the Lake County state’s attorney’s office automatically to charge the teens as adults, which is unfortunate. Before any teenager is transferred to adult court, there should be a juvenile court hearing. But for the charge of felony murder, no hearing is required.
Had there been such a hearing, Drizin said, it is “doubtful” that the teens would have been transferred to adult court on the basis of a property crime — auto theft.
Juvenile courts exist because of a recognition, supported by a wealth of research, that young people are not fully formed in their physical functioning — the brain is still developing — and at times lack good sense. They are more impulsive. Their judgment is not the best. They are more likely to follow the crowd.
A charge of felony murder in adult court takes into account none of that. There is no nuance and no mitigation.
“When children or young adults are charged with felony murder, they are branded ‘violent offenders’ for life, and they are subject to adult court, adult prison sentences and the same sentencing range as the person who pulled the trigger,” wrote Jobi Cates, executive director of the advocacy organization Restore Justice, in a Sun-Times op-ed posted online Thursday. “A conviction for felony murder usually results in youthful offenders being sentenced to extreme periods of incarceration, including for life.”
Teenage bad judgment is not the best of defenses in a case like this. The impulsiveness of young people doesn’t look like much of an excuse when you drive for an hour after midnight in a stolen car, a Lexus, to steal another car, an Audi.
And there’s reason to believe that at least one of the teens was armed.
The homeowner in Gurnee, who is 75, reportedly told the police he heard noises outside at about 1:15 a.m. and went to investigate. He saw the teens near his car. He yelled at them to leave, he told police, but at least one of them moved toward him with an object in his hand.
He fired his gun, hitting Swopes in the head.
The police report that a knife was recovered from the man’s driveway.
The five surviving teens were arrested, after a long police chase. They are off the streets, and that’s good.
But to try them as adults for murder in this instance is an overreach. It smacks more of an eagerness to lock people up than to mete out fair justice.
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