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October 26, 2010

First-degree felony murder, sentencing and plea bargaining possibilities for the "Hiccup Girl"

I am teaching felony murder today in my 1L Criminal law class, and a high-profile new case has conveniently come to the fore to spotlight the issues that the traditional felony murder doctrine presents.  I refer, of course, to the case of the (in)famous "Hiccup Girl" who is one of three individuals charged with first-degree murder in Florida based on her role as "bait" in a robbery scheme gone bad.

It seems few facts are in dispute in the case against Jennifer Mee, who became famous at age 15 because she was afflicted with never-ending hiccups.  Now 19 and mixed up with a bad crowd, Mee helped Lamont Newton and Laron Raiford lure Shannon Griffin to an empty house to be robbed.  Here is how the story linked above describes the crime and Mee's involvement:

Griffin met Mee online just a week before his death, police said. They arranged to meet Saturday night at 511 Seventh St. N. It was a trap.  The three plotted to lure Griffin to the empty home and rob him, police said.

Griffin pulled up about 10 p.m. Mee led him to the back, where police said Newton and Raiford tried to rob him.  Mee kept on walking, but seconds later gunshots rang out. Griffin struggled with the men, police said, and was shot three times in the chest and once in the shoulder with a .38-caliber revolver.

No one reported the gunshots. Police found Griffin when a caller reported a sleeping transient about 11 p.m. Saturday.  Police found the gun and shoes left behind by a suspect.  Griffin had less than $60 on him when he was killed.

Because of Florida's murder statutes and its sentencing rules, Mee and her co-defendants all would appear to be guilty of first-degree murder for which the only available punishments are death and life without parole. 

I will use the "Hiccup Girl" case to highlight common arguments against broad felony murder provisions (e.g., that it treats too harshly a defendant with little or no bad mens reaconcerning causing another's death and may not be an effective was to deter underlying felonies).  But the case has me now wondering whether and how first-degree murder cases such as this one can and should get resolved via plea bargains. 

As a technical matter, the only form of homicide which the "Hiccup Girl" can be charged with is first-degree murder.  I do not think an honest prosecutor and/or judge could or should allow Jennifer Mee to plead to a lesser homicide charge.  I suppose a prosecutor and/or judge can (and likely will?) allow Mee to plead guilty only to robbery charges and simply not bring any homicide charges.  But would this be truly a just outcome?  Would such a plea deal, in essence, be a form prosecutorial nullification given that the Florida legislature apparently has decided that the Jennifer Mee's of the world out br be facing first-degree murder for which the only available punishments are death and life without parole?

October 26, 2010 at 12:02 PM | Permalink


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Prof. Berman’s question raises a few others.

Did the Florida legislature write the law, with the assumption that prosecutors (as they do everywhere else) would exercise their usual charging discretion? If so, it does not necessarily “nullify” legislative intent, if the state decides that the interests of justice require a lesser charge. Perhaps, in that case, the prosecutors are just doing their jobs.

Certainly, there is nothing unusual about prosecutors charging something less than the maximum crime (or crimes) that the evidence would support. It happens all the time. I don’t see that as “prosecutorial nullification.”

Is it just? Well, I am certainly troubled by the idea of charging someone with murder, when death was not one of the reasonably anticipated consequences of her actions. The post above doesn’t make clear whether Mee knew her accomplices had guns. If she did, the case for felony murder makes a lot more sense.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 26, 2010 12:56:13 PM

I agree with Mark's suggestion that a prosecutor is expected to exercise judgment and discretion in charging and plea bargaining. Such an expectation is no affront to the Legislature. More broadly (in terms of political science), in this and in many areas of criminal law the Legislature gives prosecutors a smorgasbord of options and expects the prosecutor to choose which is best for the case.

"Felony murder" is an ancient and artificial rule (a classic "legal fiction"). Its antecedents and current effectiveness should be examined and critiqued. For instance I thought the traditional purpose of the felony murder rule was to make it easier to punish accidental, negligent, or reckless killings by a killer in the course of the felony, but apparently it was expanded to include killings by any co-defendant in the felony no matter what the defendant's mens rea or reasonable expectation or knowledge of facts (like the possession of a gun, or secret animus toward the victim) might be. Such a rule or statute has a logical sweetness but may not be wise in many cases.

Posted by: Penn Hackney | Oct 26, 2010 5:12:37 PM

i think she should be found guilty of first degree murder because it is absolutely foreseeable that anyone stupid (or desperate given that the victim was an "excessively shy" 22 year old male) enough to meet a stranger that he communicated with for a short period of time online at a vacant house and walk around back with her without realizing that it was a trap is stupid enough to try to fight when two people with a gun try to rob him rather than just handing over his money. then you add in the fact that she was apparently stupid enough to use her real name and telephone number to lure him which assured that she and her co-conspirators would be quickly caught - anyone dumb enough to leave that sort of trail of their crime is dumb enough to think that killing the victim so he can't testify against them is a good idea. plus it sounds like from her myspace page (someone still uses myspace? :P ) that she was into projecting a "thug" image and was into rather thuggish guys (the article stated that her previous boyfriend was arrested for robbing and beating a woman - so maybe that wasn't thuggish enough for her) - one of the guys was her boyfriend and the other was his roommate and she lived with them, so its likely that she knew that the guys had a gun.

really, i wonder if the scenario was reversed and a young woman was lured to a vacant house by a man and then robbed and killed by two women if anyone would raise the question of whether it was reasonable to find the guy who acted as the "bait" (and may well have been the "mastermind") guilty of murder?

but the real lesson here is not about felony murder - its that internet safety and common sense isn't just for women, teenagers, and children.

ginny :)

Posted by: virginia | Oct 26, 2010 7:14:25 PM

I would think the possible death of the proposed victim would be a presumptive part of undertaking forcible robbery. Especially in a state like Florida with a strong stand your ground provision. Whether you hope to get away without killing the mark or not isn't really part of it, by undertaking forcible robbery you take that chance.

I would say she should thank Justice Kennedy that there's no possibility that she will face execution. I see no reason that she shouldn't be charge under a felony murder statute.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 26, 2010 8:06:28 PM

OW Holmes has never been wrong. In a law prof analysis opposing the felony murder philosophy Holmes supported, there was a simple math error. Once corrected, it was evident the felony murder rule protected the public and deterred well. It needs to stand.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 27, 2010 7:00:45 AM

I fail to understand how engaging in plea bargaining, which frequently results in lesser charges filed to avoid the risk and expense of a trial, calls into question a prosecutor's "honesty," much less results in "nullification." Going to trial is a risk for prosecutors (think OJ) while a plea deal afford certainty, and if the only options are death and LWOP, at he age she'd probably take it to trial.

Recently in Dallas a deaf man was exonerated for a rape for which he was convicted 17 years ago. The real rapist had later been convicted of another assault, and as part of his plea bargain admitted to thirteen other rapes besides the one they prosecuted him for, including the one the deaf fellow had been convicted of (though prosecutors then failed to go back, until recently, to get the innocent guy out of prison). Was that plea deal improper because he wasn't convicted of everything they could have charged him with? That would mean prosecutors are being dishonest if they don't take every case to trial. This happens every day; it's the nature of the plea bargaining system.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 27, 2010 8:45:42 AM

First off, I agree with ginny, although don't agree with her punctuation and grammar.

Secondly, I predict the legislature will react if she's sentenced to death or LWOP. I can see it now: "Jennifer's Law: Precludes the possiblity of LWOP or death if the perpetrator is young and female."

It reminds me of my area, Central Virginia. The Charlottesville court regularly churns out pleas in possession of child pr0n about every 3 months or so. Time and time again, men between the ages of 18-40 are put away for 5 years and put on the sex offender registry.

Last year, a female DAY CARE WORKER came down the pike. Her sentence? Probation and she doesn't have to register.

Women get it easy all the time.

Read this:

Posted by: JW | Oct 27, 2010 9:55:16 AM

Conspiracy to commit some form of homicide would be a plea option in most cases.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 27, 2010 1:24:41 PM

The victim may have been stupid and naive. However, those faults do not merit the death penalty, which he suffered. Having the hiccups is an involuntary status. All you mockers here are biased singultists. She is not disabled. She is otherwise abled.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 29, 2010 6:51:41 AM

It is a sad day when pity is given to a murderer of the innocent. Simply put, her part in the murder was the larger part of this crime. The victim would never have been there had she not lured him. The other two accomplice may have assaulted him and pulled the trigger but all in the same the actions resulted in the death of an innocent man. They are all equally guilty of the murder. If you take a look at her FACEBOOK page all the young lady talks about is doing drugs and quote"getting fucked up". Jiggen is a common term in the urban world to describe your high on ecstasy. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that her frequent drug use should condemn her. What I am saying is that she is an adult and is capable of making her own decisions.

Posted by: MRMATHEWS | Nov 2, 2010 9:46:33 AM

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