Monday, August 24, 2009

Brandon Hein and the Murder-Felony Rule

While perusing through the latest edition of Newsweek, I came across an op-ed entitled WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME. The piece dealt with the plight of Brandon Hein, a young man who has been in prison for close to 14 years. Young Hein was sentenced in 1995 under the murder-felony rule that is only recognized in 24 states today. Reading this story brought me back to my days of studying Criminal Justice at Colorado Tech University. I recall, at the time, that I felt that the rule was inherently flawed in several ways. The penalty for being found guilty of felony-murder is limited to two options; death or life without the chance of parole. Though his sentence was commuted by Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this year; Brandon will still not be eligible for parole for another decade. A young man, who killed no one, will end up spending at least 24 years behind bars.

For those unfamiliar with Brandon’s story; I will do my best to summarize the events that led to his incarceration. On May 22, 1995, Brandon and a couple of his friends had been drinking and were in search of some marijuana. When they stopped by an acquaintance’s home to purchase the marijuana; a fight broke out between one of Brandon’s friends and one of the boys selling the marijuana. Unfortunately; a knife was introduced into the fight and the death of one of the dealers resulted. This occurred in Agoura Hills, CA; close to the site of the famous O.J. acquittal and the Menendez brothers’ hung jury. It’s also important to note that the youth who was killed was the son of a police officer.

I would like to clarify that I am in no way defending the actions of any of the youths. The problem I have is the American concept of the punishment befitting the crime. In cases where the murder-felony is invoked; the prosecution is at a distinct advantage since intent, a major component in any other murder case does not need to be established. Simply put: Anyone who is in the company of someone who commits a crime where a murder occurs is automatically charged with felony-murder. In this case; the crime was an apparent attempted robbery of an illegal substance. It is little wonder that 26 states do not have this rule. Had the tragedy not happened; I highly doubt the police would have been involved at all. I digress.

From the U.S. Supreme Court case Enmund v. Florida (1982):
“Neither deterrence of capital crimes nor retribution is a sufficient justification for executing petitioner. It is unlikely that the threat of the death penalty will measurably deter one such as petitioner, who does not intend to kill. As to retribution, this depends on the degree of petitioner’s culpability, which must be limited to his participation of the robbery.”

I am aware that judicial jargon is often difficult to decipher but let’s concentrate on the final line. “As to retribution, this depends on the degree of petitioner’s culpability, which must be limited to his participation of the robbery.” Aside from the fact that the robbery was of an illegal substance; Brandon’s sole participation was the robbery itself. While many, if not most, Supreme Court decisions are deemed to be precedents-Enmund v. Florida has been completely ignored.

To further highlight the injustice of Brandon’s case, let’s take a look at the sentencing guideline for 1st degree murder and its definition. In California, the sentence for 1st degree murder is 25 years to life. This leaves open the possibility of parole-Brandon’s doesn’t it. 1st degree murder is defined as: “An intentional killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated action.” First of all; Brandon’s sentence, even with the Governor’s commutation, is more severe than someone found guilty of premeditated murder. Second; by definition, 1st degree murder is FAR more heinous than anything Brandon did.

I consider the case of Brandon Hein to be both appalling and embarrassing for the entire judicial system. While Americans sit in judgment of Iran, China, and North Korea regarding their inhumane treatment of prisoners and their judicial system in general; an 18 year old young man has been forced to spend the most important years of his life in a maximum security prison. In order to reduce the budget woes of the state; California has announced that they intend to release 40,000 prisoners over the next two years. If Brandon Hein is not among the 40,000 released; the entire California legislature and its judicial system should be ashamed of themselves.

For anyone interested in learning more about Brandon; visit http://


  1. That does seem a bit harsh, that being said what was this guy doing while someone else was being stabbed? Just standing around, letting it happen?

  2. That's a good question Travis. From what I read; things happened very quickly and they admitted to being drunk at the time. One thing is clear; it was not premeditated and Brandon didn't hurt anyone. Do you think it's fair that Sqeaky Fromme was recently released and Brandon's original sentence would have never have given him that chance. I find it abhorring that calculating killers are able to be released under CA law. Yet an 18 yr old who was in the wrong place at the wrong time will be 42 before he sees the light of day. Thanks for the comment buddy.

  3. Dean,
    Soo messed up.... To many young lives are spent in jail because our system is not competent to provide alternitives that would doubtless be more meaningfull for victims and perps. This is a shame.

  4. Well said Dsent. I hope to address those very alternatives in future posts. 90% of Americans prefer counseling for our youth as opposed to incarceration. While the rate of juvenile crime has stabilized over the past few years; some states are continuing to seek more punitive measures to deal with juveniles.

  5. Dean,

    I attended Brandon's Appeal at the 9th Circuit Court today and brought my twenty and twenty-six year old sons. Technocalities were debated between counsels and judges I assume to argue for a retrial, but nothing mentioned about the inordiante sentence. Can you explain?

  6. I am from Ireland and have been following this case for years, I'm in shock as to how this can happen, don't they think he has served his time already - makes me really angry - the poor man!