Two tragedies happened in suburban Chicago the other day. A 14-year-old boy was shot and killed for allegedly trying to steal a car from a driveway and the five teenagers who were with him were charged with a murder they did not commit.
That's because of an obscure Illinois law that allows authorities to charge people with murder if someone dies during the commission of a serious crime, whether they personally inflicted the injury or not. In this case, the crime was burglary.
This provision, known as the felony murder rule, is unjust. It is bad enough when it is applied to adults. But when it involves children, it is downright shameful. And the Illinois General Assembly needs to do something about it immediately.
There's a lot about this incident in rural Lake County that is troubling.
It is too early to know whether the 75-year-old homeowner who actually shot the youngster in the head had the legal right to do so. The man had a license to carry a concealed weapon. The alleged thieves were in the driveway of his home, where his 2011 Audi was parked. And authorities found a "bowie-style knife" at the scene.
The shooter came out of his house and yelled at the young people to leave, but at least one of them, he says, moved toward him while the others apparently got into an SUV. He fired several shots, striking the 14-year-old outside the SUV.
The gunman told authorities that he feared for his life. If that's true, he had every right to protect himself under the law. It is unfortunate, though, that a child is dead for allegedly trying to steal a car that is nearly as old as he was.
Meanwhile, three siblings and two other teenage boys who were with the victim are behind bars, charged with first-degree murder and each held on $1 million bonds. There's something twisted about that.
The 18-year-old female, her two 17-year-old brothers, another 17-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy all have been charged as adults. They allegedly told investigators they had stolen vehicles in the past and went to Lake County early Tuesday to commit burglaries.
Without question, these kids deserve to be held accountable if this is true. But charging them with murder? That's ridiculous.
Illinois is among 44 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the federal government that have a felony murder rule, but Illinois' is by far one of the broadest in the nation. Its intent is to serve as a deterrent, but critics have long argued that the Illinois law is unfair because it allows people to be charged when there clearly was no intent to kill.
The felony murder rule often has been applied to suspects who were with someone who was killed by Chicago police officers or Cook County sheriff's deputies, either during the alleged commission of a crime or while under pursuit by authorities.
Only the federal government and a handful of states, including Illinois, hold defendants accountable for a codefendant's death that occurs during the commission or attempted commission of a felony, regardless of whether they were personally responsible. That includes a codefendant whose death may have been caused by a police officer, or in this case, a concealed-carry licensee.
A bill currently stalled in the General Assembly would bring Illinois in line with most other states that only hold defendants accountable for deaths they directly cause during the commission of a crime, not those caused by someone else.
House Bill 1615, introduced in January by state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, would ensure that anyone who does not personally inflict an injury during the course of a felony is not charged with first-degree murder. Only the culpable person would face charges. That's how it should be for everyone, but especially for children.
Such laws have been major targets of juvenile restorative justice efforts for years. In Illinois, for example, the rule carries a minimum sentence of 20 years and, under certain circumstances, a maximum sentence of natural life.
According to Restore Justice Illinois, youthful offenders are disproportionately affected by the felony-murder rule, as they are more likely to act in groups (or "co-offend") and are more susceptible to peer pressure.
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that youthful offenders lack maturity and are therefore more reckless and impulsive than adults. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows this.
It is wrong to charge teenagers with a murder they clearly did not intend to happen and likely never even considered might happen. It is unfair to allow a mistake, a lapse in judgment such as stealing a car, to result in a lifetime label as a violent offender.
Someone they knew died that night. And even in the alleged commission of a crime, they tried to do right by him. They put him in the SUV and stopped to ask a police officer for help. One of them got out with the victim and waited as police administered first aid. Then he was arrested.
The others did what you might expect immature, scared teenagers to do. They fled in the stolen SUV, leading a bevy of law enforcement officials on a high-speed chase from Lake County to Chicago before running out of gas.
For that, they deserve to be punished. They do not deserve to spend decades of their young adult life behind bars for a murder they did not commit.
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