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Amid Criminal Justice Reform Push, Advocates Say Felony Murder Should Be Next

Staff / WGLT
The McLean County Law and Justice Center has been host to multiple high-profile felony murder cases in recent years. Criminal justice advocates say it's time to amend the controversial law. Others in the legal community say that likely won't happen soon.

Advocates of criminal justice reform in the United States have had several achievements in the last couple of years. Both sides of the aisle embraced calls for lower prison populations. A growing social movement calls for rehabilitation over punishment.

Supporters say part of that debate should be changing Illinois' felony murder law. But others in the legal community argue that's a long shot.

In Illinois, if you assist in a forcible felony—like an armed robbery or home invasion—and someone dies, everyone involved can be charged with that person's death. Even if they didn't pull the trigger.

The idea behind the felony murder doctrine is that people understand certain crimes can turn deadly when they commit them, making them culpable if things go awry.

This includes getaway drivers and look-outs—basically anyone who is with the main offender.

That's what got Anthony Grampsas, 20, of Decatur, sent to prison for 45 years. In July, a jury found Grampsas guilty of felony murder in the December 2018 shooting death of Egerton Dover in Bloomington.

Authorities said Grampsas drove two other men to Dover's home with the intention of stealing money and drugs. They made off with some goods—and Dover's life.

Veteran defense attorney Steve Skelton represented Grampsas at trial. Skelton said he's handled about a dozen felony murder cases in his career—and most defendants had no idea they could be held responsible for murder.

"It is not at all odd for clients to be shocked and amazed (and say), 'I didn't mean to hurt anybody,'" he said.

Skelton gives the example of breaking into someone's home when you think no one's home. Then, the person you are with with panics and shoots the homeowner. You're responsible for first-degree murder, too.

"They don't have to prove that I had a plan to do any harm to you whatsoever," Skelton said. "They don't have to prove that I had a plan to end your life. It's merely that I was committing a residential burglary, and during the course of that burglary, your death was caused. So...I'm not going to say it shortcuts it for the prosecution, but do a degree, it does."

National attention

Illinois' felony murder law drew national attention last year when a group of teens were charged with their friend's death during a botched car robbery in Lake County. The owner of the vehicle shot the 14-year-old boy, whose friends were charged, although those charges were later dropped.

The incident drew calls for the state to amend or repeal the felony murder rule entirely.

Miltonette Craig, an Illinois State University criminologist, said Illinois is far from an outlier. More than 40 states have a felony murder law on the books.

Craig said Illinois is part of a smaller group that uses proximate cause theory in addition to agency theory. Agency theory means the defendant or co-defendant caused the death. Proximate cause means any death occurring in relation to the crime.

Craig said the application of the latter is broad.

"We see that so many types of situations can be encompassed in it," said Craig. "It could even be something as simple as you are just trying to rob someone, and they are very afraid and maybe have heart attack and die. That can fall within felony murder if a prosecutor wanted it to, because even accidental deaths are included."

Craig said the law can even include a co-offender who didn't know the other person was armed. And there are even more "sensational" applications.

"What's getting a lot more attention is a really, really broad expansion that we've been seeing in the last few years, where if a co-offender is shot and killed on the scene, then the other conspirators will be charged with that person's murder," Craig said.

That's what happened in Lake County. It also happened in McLean County in 2018. Then 22-year-old Brittney Mikesell was charged for her boyfriend's death after the couple attacked a man in a Bloomington trailer park. Mikesell's machete-wielding boyfriend attempted to stab the victim, who brandished his own knife in self defense.

Mikesell took a plea deal. She's serving 23 years for aggravated battery, but could get out in as little as 10.

McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said he understands why some think these cases are controversial. But he said the theory behind felony murder—and the instructions juries receive on how to decide a case—isn't that different than other laws.

"They mirror what many people would think of as the DUI reckless homicides," Knapp said. "Someone goes out and gets a DUI, or drinks and drives, and ends up killing somebody. They didn't intend to kill anybody either when they got in the car."

Knapp said the Supreme Court has kept an eye on potential misuse. Time and again, he said, justices stand by the law—stating the point is to limit the violence that accompanies the commission of forcible felonies.

He said that's something victims' families want to see, too.

"The one thing that always seems to get lost in any discussion on felony murder is I don't know that we've ever had a victim's family come through here and say, 'Oh, God, please don't charge anybody with felony murder.' Victims certainly want as many people held accountable for the deaths of their family members as possible," Knapp said.

He said you're seeing that play out in a different context now in the case of Rica Rountree. The 8-year-old girl from Normal died after her father's girlfriend abused the child. Knapp said Rountree's mother, Ann Simmons, wants everyone involved held to account.

Craig and other criminal justice reform advocates argue deterrence theory--the idea that you can scare someone out of committing a crime by promising harsher punishment--doesn't hold up. Knapp countered that some forms of deterrence, like being incarcerated, do prevent people from committing future crimes.

But Craig said just because a law is on the books doesn't mean prosecutors have to take advantage of it.

"Just because a doctrine is available doesn't mean that it has to be acted upon. For example, there are states that still have the death penalty on the books, but they don't execute anyone. So, just because it's 'fair' doesn't mean that it has to be used," he said.

Different approach

Craig supports a more proportional approach to justice in these cases. She said in business, if you put in 25%, you don't expect 100% back. She said the same is true when you the drive a car to the scene of a robbery.

Criminal justice reform advocates argue that's especially true when juveniles are involved, contending  teens' brains are underdeveloped, resulting in more impulsive behavior—especially if they fall in with the "wrong crowd."

Garien Gatewood, program director for the Illinois Justice Project, said it's not uncommon for kids to get caught on felony murder charges and sent to prison for longer than they've been alive—up to 25 years, on top of other charges and sentencing enhancements.

If the point of pursuing those charges is the make communities safer, Gatewood said, prosecutors are missing the point. He said children come out of incarceration worse than when they went in.

"While I understand and appreciate and support the need for public safety, we also have to think about smart justice and how effective we have been (with) mass incarceration," Gatewood said. "There's 40,000 people in the Department of Corrections in Illinois. How much safer do communities feel?"

Gatewood and other advocates argue "deterrence" is better accomplished by providing resources in communities most impacted by violence and working with offenders to get to the root cause of their behavior.

Previous attempts to amend Illinois' felony murder rule have gone nowhere. ISU's Craig said it would be an uphill battle to get lawmakers who campaign on public safety on board. But she said as criminal justice reform initiatives gain momentum, never say never.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.