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.