481 U.S. 137 (1987).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Where one knowingly and substantially participates in the commission of a serious crime that results in murder by his accomplices, he can be sentenced to death under the felony-murder rule even though he did not have the specific intent to kill and did not do the actual killing.

Two sons helped their father (a convicted murderer serving life in prison) and his cellmate (also a convicted murderer) escape prison. After their getaway car had a flat tire, sons flagged down a vehicle carrying a family of four with the intent to steal that car. The father and his cellmate killed the family with the guns provided by the sons. The sons did not have the intent to kill, but they made no effort to help the victims or to stop the father and his cellmate from killing the innocent family.

After capture, the sons were sentenced to death under the felony murder rule.

On appeal, the issue presented to the United States Supreme Court was whether the sons’ participation in the events leading up to and following the murder of the four family members made the sentences of death constitutionally permissible although neither of the sons specifically intended to kill the victims and neither inflicted the fatal gunshot wounds.

The Court answered in the affirmative and held that the death sentences were constitutionally permissible and did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Eighth Amendment applicable to the underlying state courts through the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court noted that the sons brought an arsenal of lethal weapons to the prison which they later handed over to two convicted murderers. Moreover, the sons played a crucial role of flagging down a passing car occupied by an innocent family whose fate was then entrusted to the known killers the sons had previously armed. The sons then robbed the family and stood by and watched the killings, making no effort to assist the victims before, during, or after the shooting. The sons’ participation in the crime was substantial and their high level of participation in the crimes further implicated them in the resulting deaths.

Thus, the Court held that the sons’ major participation in the underlying felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, was sufficient to satisfy the culpability requirement necessary to impose the death penalty under the felony-murder rule.

Compare with Enmund v. Florida.

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