Thursday, May 6, 2010

Accountability Theory

In Illinois one can be liable for the conduct of another if he helped plan or commit the crime. That is accountability theory made simple. It's given as a jury instruction and has a lot of teeth.

Here is an example: Billy and Jack are walking down the street. Billy wants to rob a 7-11. Billy asks to use Jack's gun. Billy goes into the 7-11 with Jack's gun and robs the store. Jack never goes inside, but knows what Billy is using his gun for. In this case, Jack is just as criminally liable as Billy.

Felony murder is causing the death of a person during the act of committing a forcible felony. I used the following example before: while committing an armed robbery, the victim is ran over by a truck and killed. That could be considered felony murder.

What's special about felony murder is that at trial, the actual murder, by definition, does not have to be proven by the State. The State only has to prove the underlying forcible felony and that the death occurred.

In other words, the intent element is taken out of the equation. It can be a completely accidental death, but if it happens during the commission of a forcible felony, it's considered a murder, by law. It is also sentenced as 1st Degree murder.

A recent Illinois case caught my eye. You can read it here. But here it is briefly. A group of people planned to rob a store. The defendant drove some of his friends to the store but never went inside. Two friends went inside the store. A store employee, who was outside, flagged down a police officer.

Before the officer could enter the store, the two friends came out of it. The cops gave chase.  The two were lost from sight a few times, but eventually caught. A gun was found on one of them. Back at the store, an employee was found shot to death.

Several months later, the defendant (driver) was arrested. During a series of interrogations, he admitted driving the friends to the store. He also admitted he knew they were going to rob it. He denied, however, knowing anything about a gun.

The defendant was tried and convicted by jury based on accomplice liability theory and felony murder. In this case, the underlying felony was attempted armed robbery and the accountability issue should be clear.

The defendant appealed on several grounds, but his conviction was reversed due to lack of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the issue of felony murder. How? I thought the same thing.

As I was reading the case, the accountability issue wasn't in question. He helped plan it. He drove the would-be robbers there. That's a done deal. But who actually killed the victim? A-ha. The State never proved who did.

A firearms expert testified the gun recovered from one of the boys didn't fire the bullet that killed the store clerk. Hmmm. That's pretty big. There was also evidence of other people being the store when it happened. And the police officer admitted he heard no gun firing at any time.

The analysis is: "accountability requires proof that the defendant shared with the person who actually committed the crime for which the defendant is sought be held accountable a common design."

In this case, the State failed to do so. But which crime? The attempted armed robbery or the felony murder? The water gets a little muddy because this case piggy-backs two legal principles used to expand criminal liability.

Felony murder isn't usually planned. It just happens. So I doubt there could be a common design for the shooting. That leaves just the robbery and accountability liability is pretty clear.

The appellate court reversed this conviction because the State never proved either of the two boys killed the victim. I am not sure I completely understand the legal principle this is based on, however. But the court wrote that there was simply no evidence either boy shot the clerk, let alone fired a gun that day. Maybe it's simpler than I thought.

To you non-lawyers, this may seem really weak. I already know what you're thinking. I thought the same thing. I know what happened. The real murder weapon got tossed or thrown down the sewer. Trust me, when chased by cops, people throw things they are not supposed to have. This includes drugs, but especially pistols. And double especially pistols that have a fresh body on them.

But before you think the Illinois courts have gone berserk, the case cited by the defendant's appellate attorney for this legal standard is a Federal case from the 7th Circuit. In that case, there was a large gang shooting. Someone was shot and killed. Defendant and a friend were there. They both had guns. They both fired those guns. However, neither had the gun that killed the victim, thus no accountability. Conviction reversed.

I haven't seen the record from this trial, nor will I. But if a reviewing court has to speculate about how the victim died, the appellate court probably got it right. In my mind, if speculation is required, then guilt beyond a reasonable doubt hasn't been proven. Speculation is just a fancy word for guessing. 

I have a feeling this one isn't done due to the felony murder issue.



  1. omg I read this case as part of my research and I found the same to be true that;

    1.By admitting to take part in a robbery he is at least guilty by accountability theory of armed robbery.
    However what threw me for a loop was the overturned conviction on First Degree murder because the state was not able to prove who the shooter was. Nonetheless I believe this theory to be very true that if there were no statements to implicate each other as the shooter and the gun was never recovered, then who's actions would he be accountable for.
    Can't be evident of exercising your right to remain silent and never give a statement to the police without an attorney present. Score 1 for criminal defense. What I find extremely disappointing is the fact that the jury found him guilty on these charges, but of course, they don't know law, they just know they are being inconvenienced. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I am not sure if you have heard of Paul modrowski. He is serving a natural life sentence on an accountability conviction. There is too much to his case to write here, but he does have a blog. I encourage you to check this out and contact his family if you know anyone who may be able to help.
    This is a high profile case, in which he was wrongfully convicted. 18 years later he remains in stateville correctional facility. He was convicted based on accountability for loaning his car to a friend who 'possibly' murdered another man.the 'friend' was NOT convicted, and Paul never actually lent his car out. He was 18 at the time, and had horrible council. This man has had a string of events happen, due to poor and negligent representation; it almost makes me think people are being paid off or 'swayed' to hurt his case.
    If you go to the main page of the blog, you can get a general synopsis of the events.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  3. I have heard of the case re: Paul Modrowski. It is a shocking reminder of how an Illinois law can be twisted and stretched to gain convictions. It also is frightening to learn his lawyer did NOT allow his alibi witnesses to testify, although they were key to his defense. His lawyer told family "You are innocent until proven guilty in this country. We do not have to put on a defense because the state didn't prove its case." Well the jury didn't know that!

    Besides these facts, people don't understand that an 18 year old autistic boy was interrogated over a 33 hour period without being allowed a phone call. He claims police beat him and kept him from calling his parents for help. He did not sign anything and there is no videotape, yet police were able to testify that he admitted to lending his car that day to the perpetrator.

    That was all the state needed to sway the jury. Modrowski was sentenced to natural life without parole.

  4. CC:

    I am writing this email on behalf of a man who has been overly charged and wrongfully convicted.  Matthew Doolan went to the nearest gas station to help a friend with a bleeding hand.  Ended up being the  worst night of his life.  A fight broke out, between his friends a man died accidentally due to a pre-existing heart condition.  The victim Adam Abdullah, exited the vehicle  on his own free will.  Then ran around a gas station, and jumped four feet in the air on the hood of a van.  At this time, he was chasing another defendant, jumped off the hood of a van and collapsed.  Forcing his heart into a irreversible beat.  In the two and a half minutes in which the "fight " occurred, Matthew tried to stop it five  times. Matthew never made contact with the victim or tried to harm any person, what-so-ever!  He was profiled as a gang member.  The states attorney portrayed him as a ring leader and security with no prove or evidence of that fact.  The states attorneys misconduct is the only reason the jury came to this conclusion.  Matthew was profiled because of his size.  The original indictment was falsified because the detective lied to the grand jury in order to get these outrageous charges.  The motion for dismissal was in process when a second indictment was introduced to the court   The key piece of evidence in this case is a video from the gas station where the incident occurred.  The judge denied our motion for dismissal to view the tape, stating that he would rather have the jury view it!!!  At this time, we never elected a jury trial. Meanwhile, Two weeks after our motion the same judge viewed the same tape for the state without Matthew or his attorney being present.  Matthews civil rights were clearly violated.  He was convicted on the theory of accountability for felony murder, first degree murder, and murder B.  He is awaiting sentencing, facing 25 years at minimum. Matthew has a lot of support  from friends, community, and family.  An appeal is in progress.  But we need help getting justice for Matt! Please contact me and aid in any way possible.  Thank you for your time.

    Sincerely signed,
    Doolan Family

    Tom/ Sandy Doolan

  5. Sad about Paul Modrowski.


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