Topeka — A divided Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday that prosecutors overreached in leveling felony-murder charges in two cases, including one from Lawrence.
The 4-3 decisions prompted criticism from Justice Bob Abbott, who wrote in his dissent, "The majority has opened a Pandora's box and left the law grossly unsettled."
The felony-murder law states that anyone committing a felony is guilty of first-degree murder if during the course of the crime someone is killed, regardless of whether the death was accidental or if that defendant caused it to happen.
But in the two cases before the court, the people who were killed were committing the crimes. And prosecutors charged their co-felons.
In the Lawrence case, Maurice T. Murphy was charged with felony murder because a 1998 burglary he had been involved with resulted in the death of one of his co-felons, who was shot by a resident of the house they had tried to rob.
In a case from Emporia, one of four men who were caught after a residential break-in was killed by a policeman. Officials later won a felony-murder conviction against one of the co-felons in the case. The court struck down the felony-murder conviction against Sanexay Sophophone, who also was convicted on several other counts.
Justice Edward Larson, writing for the majority, said, "We believe that making one criminally responsible for the lawful acts of a law enforcement officer is not the intent of the felony-murder statute as it is currently written."
In dissent, Abbott said the majority had overstepped its authority. "It is not this court's prerogative to decide what is and is not felony murder. It is a legislative function."
In the Lawrence case, the court upheld District Court Judge Robert Fairchild's decision to dismiss the felony-murder count against Murphy.
In the Murphy decision, the court also upheld the trial court's decision to depart from sentencing guidelines and give Murphy a lighter sentence.
Murphy was charged in connection with a May 27, 1998, robbery. Murphy and two other men went to a house, rousted everyone out of bed and demanded their valuables, according to court records.
One of the intruders, Jimmy Johnson, wound up being shot and killed by a resident of the house.
Murphy pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and kidnapping and was sentenced to 49 months in prison on each count to run concurrently.
The trial court then granted Murphy's request to depart from the sentence. He ended up being sentenced to probation and six months in the Labette Conservation Camp, which is a "boot camp" program.
The trial court said it assessed the lighter sentence because Murphy, who was 19 at the time, had no prior criminal history, did not instigate the incident, had a good work record and a supportive family.