Felony Murder and Mass Incarceration

In November 2020, Stavian Rodriguez (15) and Wyatt Cheatham (17) robbed a convenience store in south Oklahoma City at gunpoint. After fleeing the scene, Rodriguez returned to demand more money. When the police arrived to the scene, Rodriguez began to surrender himself and dropped his gun. Ultimately, he was shot by 6 of the officers on the scene, 5 of whom fired lethal rounds. Despite not being present at the scene, Cheatham was initially charged with first-degree felony murder for the death of Rodriguez. While the first-degree murder charges were ultimately dropped against Cheatham, many individuals throughout Oklahoma are sitting in jails awaiting trial for similar charges or are in prison after being convicted with felony murder. 

In October of 1979, Steven Hatch and Glen Ake burglarized, assaulted, and robbed the Douglass family in Okarche. After terrorizing the family, Ake told Hatch to go out to the car and “listen for the sound.” After Hatch left the house, Ake shot and killed Reverend and Mrs. Douglass. Hatch was ultimately sentenced to death for the two murders and executed on August 9, 1996. Ake’s conviction was ultimately overturned after winning an insanity plea on appeal. His sentence was downgraded to life without the possibility of parole.  

The felony murder doctrine is a law used throughout jurisdictions in the United States that allows the State to charge individuals with first- or second-degree murder if a death results in the commission of a felony. In Oklahoma, the statutory authority allowing felony murder is 21 O.S. 2011, §§ 701.7 and 701.8. It removes the State’s obligation to prove the “intent to kill” requirement while subjecting the defendant to the same level of punishment. According to state statute, when an individual is convicted, pleads guilty, or nolo contendre, the punishment is either life with or without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.  

While felony murder cases are more common in instances of robbery, there appears to be an increase of felony murder charges in cases where an individual overdoses from illicit drug usage with prosecutors targeting the individual who sold the narcotic. In February, Joshua Josiah Toliver, 23, was charged with first-degree felony murder for selling a drug containing fentanyl that ultimately led to somebody’s death. It is unclear whether Toliver or the victim were aware that the narcotic contained fentanyl. While illicit drug usage is a significant issue, if convicted, Toliver risks spending the rest of his life in prison for selling illicit drugs to a willing buyer.  

Cameron Payne is another young man who is awaiting trial for a first-degree murder charge after he sold illicit drugs to an individual who ultimately overdosed. This highlights an injustice where an issue of illicit drug usage and addiction is overshadowed by remnants of the War on Drugs and harsh punishment. 

Finally, unlike Cheatham, the State does not always drop felony murder charges against individuals charged with the death of someone killed by police officers. In March of 2021, an inmate at the Oklahoma County Detention Center, Curtis Williams, took a corrections officer hostage in protest of inhumane jail conditions. There were five other inmates allegedly involved, though it is unclear how many of them were actively participating in the hostage situation. When OKCPD arrived at the scene, they shot and killed Williams. As a result, the other five inmates were each charged with felony murder in the first degree for the death of their alleged co-conspirator.  

All these cases demonstrate various flaws within our legal system where individuals are overly and harshly punished for crimes they did not directly commit. Recently, The Sentencing Project released a report on felony murder cases throughout the country to demonstrate the direct impact of mass incarceration, as there are various states that either mandate or permit life without parole (LWOP) for a felony murder conviction. There are only eight states that do not have LWOP as an option. Hawaii is the only state without a felony murder statute. 

In some states, anywhere from one-fourth to one-half of inmates sentenced to LWOP were convicted of felony murder. This report also demonstrates how felony murder charges are disproportionate amongst race, gender, and age. In some jurisdictions, over half of the inmates convicted of felony murder are African-American with Pennsylvania leading these numbers as four out of five felony murder convictions were against people of color and 70% were African-American. According to the census, Pennsylvania consists of a population of 81.6% White with only a 12% African-American population[1]. There is currently no statistical information on felony murder charges in Oklahoma. 

Felony murder charges directly contribute to mass incarceration. Given that Oklahoma consistently ranks in the top 3 incarcerators in the nation, with rates even higher than the United States as a whole, it is imperative legislators consider the felony murder doctrine in conversations about criminal justice reform.  
[1] Ghandnoosh, Nazgol, and Nicole D. Porter. 2022. “Felony Murder: An on-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing.” The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/felony-murder-an-on-ramp-... (March 23, 2022).