Felony Murder Shouldn’t Trigger Death Penalty, TCP Brief Argues

On April 17, 2014, TCP co-filed an amicus curiae brief with the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama to urge the US Supreme Court to grant certiorari in the case of Pruitt v. Tennessee.  In this capital case, TCP urges the Court to prohibit states’ use of felony murder as an eligibility criterion for the death penalty.  Felony murder is a death that occurs in the course of a felony.  Under a felony murder rule, the prosecution is relieved of its burden of proving that the defendant intended the death of another and need only prove that a death occurred during the course of a felony in which the defendant participated.  In other words, felony murder is a strict liability crime.   While TCP’s death penalty committee takes no position on the appropriateness of using felony murder to obtain a conviction, it condemns the use of felony murder as a death penalty-eligible offense.  Consistent with the Death Penalty Committee’s long-standing recommendation (see Recommendation 6 in Mandatory Justice), the brief argues that a capital sentencing scheme that fails to exclude felony murder from death penalty eligibility creates an unacceptable risk of arbitrary and capricious executions.

The petitioner’s case well-illustrates this risk:  The petitioner, Corinio Pruitt, decided to steal a car from a convenience-store parking lot.  When the car’s owner, 79-year-old Lawrence Guidroz, came out of the store, Pruitt shoved Mr. Guidroz against the car, pushed him to the ground, saw his head hit the pavement, and drove away.  Pruitt did not use any firearm or weapon in committing the robbery. Mr. Guidroz, who suffered from coagulopathy and severe coronary atherosclerosis, later died in the hospital.  Once Pruitt learned of Mr. Guidroz’s death, he turned himself in to police.  Based on these events, a grand jury indicted Pruitt for both first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder.  The jury found him guilty of the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder, and thus necessarily determined that he did not “intentionally” cause Mr. Guidroz’s death.

Although second-degree murder is not a capital crime, Pruitt also was convicted of first-degree felony murder.  This conviction made him eligible for a sentence of death and the prosecution sought the death penalty.  At sentencing, the jury found that the aggravating circumstances—petitioner was previously convicted of a robbery, the victim was over 70-years-old, and the murder was “knowingly committed” in the course of a robbery in which petitioner had a substantial role—outweighed any mitigating circumstances, including that “the Defendant did not intentionally . . . [nor] premeditatively kill [the victim],” and sentenced petitioner to death.  Although the jury and courts at every stage of review determined that Pruitt did not intend to kill, Tennessee’s capital punishment system (like those is many other states) authorized a jury to sentence him to death.

The brief argues that including accidental and non-intentional murderers among the death-eligible offenses creates perverse outcomes—those least “deserving” of a death sentence can be sentenced to die while premeditated and intentional murderers may avoid capital punishment.  Such results are incompatible with the Eighth Amendment. TCP previously co-filed a brief with the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in the Tennessee Supreme Court in March 2012, urging the court prohibit imposition of the death penalty for felony murder in which the defendant never formed an intent to kill.  The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, upheld Pruitt’s death sentence.  The petition for certiorari to the US Supreme Court followed this decision.

TCP is grateful for the pro bono assistance of Jones Day in preparing the brief.


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