Keep SAFE-T Act reforms, but hold those who start gun battles accountable

The change in the felony murder law does raise the question of how to charge those accused of instigating gun violence that leads to homicides.

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Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker picks up the nearly 800-page criminal justice reform bill after signing it into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side on Feb. 22, 2021.

Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker picks up the nearly 800-page criminal justice reform bill after signing it into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side on Feb. 22.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Republican leaders last week amped up their calls to repeal the state’s SAFE-T Act, outraged over two cases in which the men who allegedly instigated deadly gun battles won’t face first-degree murder charges.

The outrage is understandable. Two people — a 54-year-old woman on her way to buy a lottery ticket in one case, a young man attending a house party in the other — are dead.

And the two suspects who allegedly started the gunfights that led to those deaths are not, as yet, facing anything more than weapons charges.

Travis Andrews and Tayvon Powe would have faced murder charges if the felony murder law had not been amended under the SAFE-T Act, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney James Murphy told two separate judges during hearings at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse last week.

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With two people dead, it’s easy to feel anger that Andrews, 26, and Powe, 22, at this point are only facing weapons violations, though those crimes could land them in prison for over a decade if they are convicted, as the Sun-Times’ Matthew Hendrickson reported.

In a city beset with deadly gun violence, it is imperative that those who set violence in motion pay a steep price under the law. But the SAFE-T Act need not — and should not — be repealed to accomplish that.

The criminal justice reforms included in the bill, such as a requirement for all police officers in the state to wear body cameras, are too important to scuttle.

Prosecutors’ hands aren’t tied

Included in the SAFE-T Act was a change in the felony murder law, which took effect over the summer. Previously, if a person was inadvertently killed by a third party while a crime was being committed by others, those others could be charged with the murder.

The SAFE-T Act removed that provision. This has raised the question of whether Andrews and Powe, and others accused of instigating gun battles that lead to homicides, can face murder or similarly serious charges.

That can still be done, according to University of Illinois-Chicago law professor Kim D. Ricardo.

The SAFE-T Act does not tie the hands of prosecutors, Ricardo said. The state’s attorney’s office could seek involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide charges against Andrews and Powe, without relying on the felony murder rule.

Ricardo also noted there is a first-degree murder charge, in which the accused knows his or her acts “create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm.”

It’s hard to argue that someone who starts a gun battle isn’t fully aware that someone is likely to be gravely injured or killed.

A needed reform

Criminal justice reform advocates have pointed out why the felony murder statute, in its previous form, needed to be changed.

Consider what happened to college football player Timothy Jones, who was sent to prison for nearly 30 years in 2016 for the murder of motorist Jacqueline Reynolds.

Reynolds, who was on her way to a funeral, was killed when Chicago police crashed into her car as they chased Jones, who had just stolen electronics, Air Jordans and $93 from a man he knew from high school.

Reckless, yes — but a far cry from instigating a gunfight on the street.

At his sentencing, Reynolds’ friend said she would have been upset knowing Jones was used as “a sacrificial lamb” in her death.

In fact, the felony murder law has not been fully eliminated, as some have wrongly suggested. If a suspect kills a victim during the course of a robbery, home invasion or other serious offense, their accomplices can still be charged with murder even though they didn’t pull the trigger.

That’s in line with what other jurisdictions are practicing across the country. Rescinding the SAFE-T Act — which stands for Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity Today — would be taking a step back.

Without the modification in the felony murder law, too many people, especially young Black men like Jones, risk being locked up for murders they didn’t commit or didn’t plan to happen.

But it’s easy to draw the line when the alleged actions involve instigating gunfire.

Andrews started a gunfight that led to the death of 54-year-old Melinda Crump, who was killed in Austin on Dec. 18, 2021, prosecutors said.

Powe and another man allegedly began shooting at partygoers in Englewood on New Year’s Day after their friend, Antonio Rankin, told Powe he had gotten into a fight there. When someone returned fire, Rankin was struck in the back and died, prosecutors said.

Starting the shootouts created a domino effect that ended in the deaths of Crump and Rankin.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said her office will be pursuing “accountability” in these cases. We hope so.

The loss of innocent lives demands it.

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