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Pennsylvania Man Charged With Homicide Wasn’t Even Present When Victim Was Killed

Darius Jacob Taylor wasn’t in the state when a robbery he was allegedly involved with ended in murder. But because of the felony murder rule, he’s charged with criminal homicide and faces life imprisonment.

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by txking/Getty Images.

Twenty-year-old Wesley Burnett was shot once in the chest on Oct. 20 while attempting rob two men in a wooded area near a farm outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Burnett died along a gravel road near the crime scene; soon after, four men, including Darius Jacob Taylor, 20, were charged in his killing. But Taylor did not fire the shot that killed Burnett. He was not even in the state when the offense occurred.

At first, Taylor was charged only with conspiracy to commit robbery. But Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal amended his charges to include criminal homicide—a catch-all charge in Pennsylvania that includes second-degree murder and carries with it a potential life sentence.

Police said Taylor helped Burnett and another man, Issayah Fostion, 20, coordinate a marijuana buy from Cole Robinson, 19. The plan was rob Robinson, but Taylor sent Burnett in his place. When Burnett pulled a gun, he was shot and killed by Anthony Bernardo, 36, who was traveling with Robinson.

Fostion then called Taylor to tell him what happened. Taylor told Fostion to take Burnett to the hospital, but Fostion feared he would get in trouble, so he dumped Burnett along the side of the road and fled.

Pennsylvania State Police initially charged Fostion, Bernardo, and Robinson with second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison; Bernardo’s and Robinson’s charges were later changed to criminal homicide. All four men charged in connection with Burnett’s death were denied bail and are  being held in Franklin County Jail awaiting trial.

Fogal declined The Appeal’s request for an interview because he said he is barred from making “extrajudicial comments” about the case.

States Beginning To Reject Felony Murder Rule

The felony murder rule—which punishes people for deaths that occur during the commission of crime like robbery—continues to carry profound consequences. On Dec. 4, Texas executed Joseph Garcia, who was convicted of capital murder in the death of a police officer during a robbery at a sporting goods store in 2000, even though Garcia maintained he never fired his gun. Garcia and his six accomplices, who had escaped from prison just before the robbery, were charged under Texas’s law of parties, which holds that the state must show only that an accomplice to one felony may have “anticipated” another felony could occur in order to be held responsible for the crime.

But use of the felony murder rule is being rejected elsewhere. California recently passed a law changing the standard for the use of felony murder. Under the new law, prosecutors are required to prove the defendant was the actual killer or substantially assisted the killer.  The new law would also allow people convicted of felony murder to petition for a new sentence. Supporters of the law estimate that 400 to 800 people are serving sentences in California for felony murder.

In Pennsylvania, however, the use of felony murder persists. In 2014, Fogal charged 20-year-old Darius Spoonhour with second-degree murder after a 2013 home-invasion robbery near Chambersburg.

Police said Spoonhour and Jannoris Hughes attempted to rob the home of Mickle Shaffer, but Shaffer fought back, grabbed Hughes’s gun and killed him. Shaffer was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to at least 20 years in state prison. Fogal later dropped the felony murder charge against Spoonhour in exchange a conspiracy to commit robbery plea in which he was sentenced to three and a half to seven years in prison.

Proponents of the felony murder rule say it’s a deterrent against violent crime and helps prevent death during the commission of such crimes. But there is little or no evidence to support that argument.

Susan Sharp, a professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, told The Appeal that it is highly unlikely that someone committing a robbery or any other crime is thinking they will get caught and do not consider the consequences of someone getting harmed or killed during its commission.

Sharp said prosecutors use the potential of a felony murder charge to coerce guilty pleas to lesser charges that “become a notch in the prosecutor’s belt.”

A 2016 study by University of Chicago law professor Anup Malani found the felony murder rule has little to no deterrent effect and may slightly increase the number of deaths associated with serious felony crimes. While much of the academic work around the felony murder rule focused on its legal justification, Malani’s study used nationwide FBI Universal Crime Report data between 1970 and 1998 to review its efficacy. Malani found no evidence that the felony murder rule had a deterrent effect on crime or reduced the number of deaths resulting from felonies. “Policymakers should draw one conclusion from this paper: the felony-murder rule does not substantially improve crime rates,” Malani wrote.

For Taylor, his alleged involvement in a robbery that turned deadly could mean he that he has already spent his last days as a free man—despite not firing a shot or even being present at the scene of the crime.