Life in Prison for a Killing He Didn’t Cause or Condone
In Illinois alone, around 500 people are currently serving first-degree felony murder sentences for killings they did not commit themselves or intend to commit. Reform efforts must consider past injustices as well as future abuses.
Sarah Free Apr 27, 2023
In 2005, Terrell Jones was a 24-year-old struggling to find his footing in the world. After a deeply traumatic childhood and adolescence, he was unemployed and lacked stable housing. Drugs were his “only escape,” Jones would later write.
Jones had only one friend, a young man named Larry. One day, the pair were hanging out in an abandoned apartment with two people Larry knew. Unbeknownst to Jones, Larry’s friends had hatched a plan to invite two strangers over and rob them.
When the men arrived, Larry handed Jones a gun and demanded he “get” one of them. After the robbery, Larry’s friends told Jones and Larry to kill the victims. Jones refused and instead walked the men back to their car with Larry. One of them fled, and Larry ran after him, while Jones headed back into the apartment.
Tragically, Larry shot and killed the man during the pursuit. A police officer, who happened to be driving by at the time, then fatally shot Larry. Despite never killing anyone himself—and, Jones says, begging his friend not to harm anyone—Jones was arrested and convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, including one for Larry’s death, under Illinois’s felony murder statute. Nearly 20 years later, he remains in prison on a mandatory life sentence. I am currently representing him in his petition for executive clemency.
For better or worse, the primary purpose of criminal punishment is to ensure that people face consequences for actions they are responsible for. Felony murder—generally defined as the unintended killing of another person during the commission of a felony—flips that basic premise on its head. In Illinois and the 47 other states with such statutes in place, people routinely face first-degree murder charges for killings that they did not commit, did not condone, and often did not know would happen. As in the case of Jones, people can even be held responsible for a death caused by someone else.
In Illinois, around 500 people are currently serving first-degree murder sentences for felony murder. Many were getaway drivers, lookouts, or, as in Jones’s case, people who explicitly refused to kill. Still, they are serving decades in prison for someone else’s actions. If we are to meaningfully confront mass incarceration in Illinois, we must change our state’s felony murder law and resentence those who are facing draconian punishments for murders they did not commit.
Legislation introduced this year in the Illinois General Assembly would bring the state in line with a growing number of jurisdictions that have sought to address the harms of these overly punitive laws. The proposal would reclassify felony murder as second-degree murder, rather than first-degree, and allow people convicted under the existing law to seek resentencing. Similar legislation passed in Colorado in 2021. Other states, such as Maryland, are considering more sweeping changes, including banning the use of the rule for people under the age of 25.
Terrell Jones’s case highlights many of the contradictions and cruelties of the felony murder rule. Nearly two-thirds of all people sentenced under the law in Illinois were under the age of 26 when they were taken into custody. But even in the face of a quarter century of research establishing that people lack critical brain development until their mid-20s, those as young as 18 are not afforded any categorical sentencing protections on the basis of their age. The average sentence for people aged 18 to 26 convicted under Illinois’s felony murder rule is 41 years (this includes life sentences, which are calculated at 61 years). This number is particularly cruel given that the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that 40 years is the functional equivalent of a life sentence for those under the age of 18.
Nationwide numbers reflect similarly disturbing trends. In nine states and at the federal level, felony murder convictions carry a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Fifteen states mandate life without parole under certain circumstances, and 16 states and Washington, D.C., make it an option.
Legal professionals and lay people alike recognize that punishment under the felony murder rule grossly overstates the role many people play in the killings they are convicted for. Although our laws largely recognize the important distinction between intentional and unintentional homicide, the felony murder rule remains an outdated and brutal exception.
Opponents of the felony murder rule have long criticized it as both overly punitive and ineffective, and reform efforts must include a meaningful commitment to addressing past injustices as well as to preventing future abuses. Jones has spent the past 18 years in prison. Unless he is granted clemency—a Hail Mary legal process and likely his last resort—Jones will die in prison, a gross injustice by every conceivable measure.
By changing these statutes, we can move toward a world in which our laws do not falsely equate retribution with justice. To get there, however, we must have the courage to look backward as well as forward.
Sarah Free is an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Illinois Prison Project, and is currently representing Terrell Jones as he seeks clemency for his mandatory life sentence in prison. Her fellowship is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
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