How Missouri’s ‘Felony Murder’ Law Traps People for Defending Themselves
An investigation by The Appeal and the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab reveals how prosecutors use the state's felony murder statute to imprison people who say they acted in self-defense. The majority of those convicted under the law since 2010 are Black. "I had to take the plea because they’re using this law to get people to stay locked up," one man said.
Thomas Birmingham Jul 10, 2023
This piece was published in partnership with the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab.
Technically speaking, Antonio Meanus wasn’t supposed to own the gun he had stashed in his pants on Oct. 7, 2021. But he didn’t believe he had much of a choice.
Earlier that day in Springfield, Missouri, Meanus, a tall, 30-year-old man with a goatee and shoulder-length dreadlocks, had gotten a call from a man named Raquan White, the son of his former boss. White said he was in a financial bind. He was going to come up short on his next rent payment and wanted to sell an iPhone to a 17-year-old named I’Shon Dunham. But White had dealt with Dunham in the past and said that he “didn’t feel trustworthy.” So Meanus says White asked him to come along to make sure Dunham didn’t rob him.
Meanus, who had grown up in some of the roughest areas of St. Louis, told White that the whole thing was a bad idea and offered to just give him some money. But White insisted on going. Not one to abandon a friend, Meanus got in the car.
It had been an unusually warm fall day for the city’s 170,000 residents. About halfway through the ride to the meetup point, Meanus again tried to convince White to go home instead.
“I said, ‘This don’t sound right,’” Meanus told The Appeal in a phone interview from the state’s Crossroads Correctional Center. “Let’s just turn around and go back.” White assured him it would be fine and kept driving.
They eventually reached a two-story apartment building on 422 East Norton Road. Newly planted trees dotted the lawn around the parking lot. Dunham and a stranger emerged from the red brick apartment building. The stranger’s hand was tucked under his shirt. Dunham, a slender teenager with big eyes, a wide smile, and a peach-fuzz beard, hopped into the front seat and asked for the iPhone. But White first demanded to know what the uninvited guest was doing there.
“He cool,” Dunham said.
Dunham then lunged forward, tried to grab the iPhone, and began grappling with White in the front seat. After a brief struggle, Dunham wordlessly pulled out a gun and pointed it at White’s head.
Meanus panicked. He believed that both he and White would be killed. So he pulled out his gun and shot Dunham, killing him.
Distressed, Meanus called the police to report what had happened. He knew he couldn’t have done anything else in the circumstances. He didn’t know, however, that a single state law had already taken away his right to save himself.
Eight months later, in July 2022, Meanus sat in the correctional center in Cameron, Missouri. Dalton Minnick, his best friend, was visiting him. The Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had charged Meanus with second-degree felony murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. The state’s final plea offer was 12 years in prison. If Meanus risked a trial and lost, the sentence could soar to 30 years—or life.
Meanus said he wasn’t worried. He knew he’d acted in self-defense. For months, Meanus said, he believed a jury would see it, too. Minnick agreed.
“If it was me,” Minnick said, “I would go to trial.”
But then Greene County public defender Christopher Hatley, who had been assigned to Meanus’ case, sat Meanus down and gave him the worst news he said he’d ever received.
Even though Meanus had believed he would die that afternoon if he didn’t shoot, Hatley said his self-defense claim didn’t matter. Instead, he’d be tried under Missouri’s controversial felony-murder law, which allows prosecutors to charge people with murder if, while they are committing a felony such as a robbery or assault, someone dies or is killed by a third party.
The terms of the law ensured that Meanus was as good as convicted.
Missouri is one of only four states where there are no limits on which felonies can trigger a felony-murder charge, and, once prosecutors invoke the law, defendants can no longer claim they acted in self-defense. Meanus had previous felonies related to drug charges and a robbery connected to a bar fight—so he was committing a felony by illegally possessing a gun. In the eyes of the law, the rest of what happened the day of Dunham’s death no longer mattered.
“They said I need to be locked up,” Meanus said, emotion heavy in his voice. “They said I was a danger to my community. They said I was trying to commit murder. And I was like, somebody please say something! It’s not true!”
So on July 28, 2022, Meanus took the 12-year sentence and entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence on the record while acknowledging that the state would likely find him guilty if he went to trial. Absent further appeals or clemency from the governor, he will spend the next decade or more in a cell.
Meanus is not alone. There are at least 10 men in the state of Missouri who are serving sentences for felony murder in cases where they maintain that they killed someone in self-defense, according to a three-month investigation by The Appeal and the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab. The Appeal also spoke to 10 public defenders across the state. Eight said they either had such a case in their district or knew of one nearby.
Of the 10 men who say they shot someone to save their own lives, seven had prior felony convictions at the time of the shooting.
According to a study by the Sentencing Project, there were at least 67,800 felons on parole or probation in Missouri in 2020. The situation raises questions about who Missouri believes deserves the right to fight back if someone is trying to kill them.
“If you are a convicted felon in Missouri, you have lost your right to self-defense,” Hatley told The Appeal.
Ruth Petsch, the district defender in Kansas City—Missouri’s largest city—seethed as she spoke about the law’s impact in her district.
“Once you become a felon, you lose all these rights to keep a job. It’s harder to get housing. It’s harder to get assistance,” she said. “You’re left in a neighborhood where you’re more likely to have someone put a gun in your face like that. But in Missouri, once you become a felon, you just have to get shot.”
Josh Lohn, a public defender working in St. Louis, told The Appeal that he first became frustrated with the felony-murder law when he was assigned to defend a 49-year-old named Robert Smith who, like Meanus, had killed someone in a situation where he thought he was going to die.
Smith was making dinner in November 2019 when his elderly roommate—who, according to court records, was high on fentanyl and cocaine at the time—suddenly slashed at him with a knife. According to Smith, the pair fell to the ground grappling until Smith pulled out the gun he kept at his side and fatally shot his roommate. Smith had a prior felony conviction—a DUI from nearly two decades ago—and thus was in illegal possession of a firearm. Just like Meanus, Smith says he would likely be dead now if he hadn’t had the weapon.
But the prosecution found a way around Smith’s self-defense claim—by filing a felony-murder charge. The Missouri Supreme Court has at least three times issued rulings saying self-defense has no bearing in felony-murder cases, because, per the statute, all that must be proven is the underlying felony.
“[The prosecutor] admitted to the judge, on the record, that the reason he did that was because he knew that you could not use self-defense as a defense to felony murder,” Lohn said in an interview with The Appeal, during which he spoke for nearly an hour, interrupted only by his own increasingly agitated sighs. “It’s a disgusting misuse of the law.”
The prosecutor in Smith’s case, Srikant Chigurupati, did not respond to requests for comment.
Smith was convicted at trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Prior to sentencing, Jason Cummings, the jury foreman in the case, wrote Missouri 22nd Judicial Circuit Court Judge Katherine Fowler a letter asking her to give Smith the “most lenient sentence possible,” since it “was clear that Robert … was doing his best to make ends meet and stay out of trouble in a very violent and dangerous part of St. Louis.” Fowler later re-sentenced Smith to five years probation.
Cummings, a financial planner originally from Columbus, Ohio, told The Appeal that he’d never heard of the felony-murder statute before being asked to convict someone under it.
“I said to myself, ‘What the hell is that?’” Cummings said. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t feel good about this.’”
In Missouri, this law is disproportionately applied against people of color. 82.6 percent of the population is white, and 11.8 percent is Black. But six of the 10 men identified in these felony-murder cases that involve a self-defense claim—and two of the three from Greene County—are Black. A majority (54.9 percent) of people convicted of felony murder in the state since 2010 have been Black, and only 34 percent have been white. Additionally, according to Missouri’s 2019–2020 Offender Profile, felony murder was the 14th most common charge brought against Black people. The charge didn’t even make the top 20 for white people.
More than one out of every six Black people convicted of felony murder were minors at the time of the crime, sometimes as young as 13. And 84 percent of all the minors convicted were Black.
Another Missouri man, Matthew Borg, was charged with felony murder in 2021 after an incident in which he says a man wielding a baseball bat broke into his hotel room and attacked him. Borg shot the man dead, but he was illegally in possession of the firearm he used, because of a past felony conviction. So, just like Meanus, he took an Alford plea and was sentenced in November to 12 years in prison.
Borg and Meanus are two of 16 people convicted of felony murder in Greene County since 2011.
“I just don’t understand,” Borg told The Appeal. “All of a sudden [Borg’s public defender] was telling me ‘You got to take this [plea]. We have no options whatsoever. This can’t go to trial.’”
In an interview, Greene County’s chief assistant prosecuting attorney, Joshua Harrel, firmly stood by his office’s use of felony-murder laws.
“This is one tool that the current state of Missouri law has given us that allows us to get some of those weapons off the street and those who would be using them illegally off the street,” Harrel told The Appeal.
Harrel said he believes that when a person is dead who would not be dead but for the actions of a defendant like Meanus, it is a prosecutor’s duty to file charges. He added that, in his opinion, people must be deterred from creating dangerous situations and said using felony murder is one way to accomplish this. But as the legal scholar Guyora Binder, author of the book “Felony Murder,” , writes, “undeserved punishment [under the felony murder rule] may … provoke more crime than it deters.”
Harrel was not the lead prosecutor on Meanus’s case. But he agreed that, if the case had not been a felony-murder case, his office would not have had enough evidence to refute Meanus’s self-defense claim.
“But I would not have hesitated to file felony-murder charges on Mr. Meanus’ case,” Harrel said. He scoffed at the public defenders’ assertions that self-defense ought to be taken into consideration and said there wasn’t a world in which he could imagine a jury having sympathy “for people engaged in these kinds of behaviors.”
The afternoon Meanus pulled the trigger to defend himself wasn’t the first time he had seen someone die. That was when he was four years old.
In 1995, in a cramped apartment on the Northside of St. Louis, his aunt cut his uncle’s throat as Meanus looked on. Meanus said he still has PTSD from that day and experiences violent dreams. Sometimes he’s chased by his aunt. Sometimes it’s by the bottle of beer she drank after she did it.
Troubles continued to follow Meanus throughout his youth. At a family gathering when he was eight, Meanus said, he was molested. When he was 17, Vashon High School expelled him for what he calls a misunderstanding involving an altercation with one of the school’s security guards. (The school did not respond to a request for comment.)
Afterward, he attended Sanford-Brown College’s medical assistant program for six months, but he says the school asked him to leave upon discovering he had not completed high school and didn’t have a GED. Not finishing school has always hurt. He remembers a day in elementary school when he overheard his teachers saying math was the hardest subject for kids to learn. That day, math became Meanus’s favorite subject.
By age 21, he found himself in perpetual turmoil, struggling with a meth addiction, and alternating between sleeping on the streets and staying on the couches of various cousins and aunts.
“I was really trying to stay in school, but I couldn’t get a break,” Meanus said. “I was hungry. Homeless. Just feeling like everything was unfair.”