The prosecutors and defense agree: Gregory Muse didn't shoot Correy Ransom in the head. But that didn't stop a St. Clair County jury from convicting Muse of first-degree murder in Ransom's death.
Muse will be sentenced April 17 after he was convicted earlier this month of first-degree murder under the felony murder theory, a controversial use of the law that allows someone to be held accountable for the murder of an accomplice.
Muse and Ransom, 34, held up the Pawn Pros at 1115 State St. in East St. Louis at gunpoint on Aug. 27, 2011. As the two left the store with a plastic shopping bag and a pillowcase filled with jewelry, the pawn shop's owner, who legally possessed a gun, shot Ransom, who fell dead out of the store, falling on the sidewalk. Muse got away on foot, carrying money and merchandise. He was arrested a block away from the store.
According to Northern Illinois University College of Law professor Marc Falkoff, a person can be convicted of first-degree murder if the state proves that the defendant:
* Intentionally killed someone.
* Knew that their conduct created a strong probability that someone would be killed and someone was killed.
* Attempted to commit a forcible felony, such as armed robbery, and someone was killed.
With felony murder, Falkoff said, the defendant engages in very dangerous criminal conduct, then the state can hold them liable as a first-degree murderer for any killings that occur during the criminal conduct, even if the defendant takes extraordinary steps to prevent the killing.
A state's attorney has discretion regarding how cases are charged. St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly opted to charge Muse with murder.
"A defendant is accountable for the death of anyone including innocent bystanders or fellow criminals during the course of a forcible felony," Kelly said. "It doesn't matter if the bullet came from a defendant's gun or the gun of a victim acting in self-defense. If the law and the evidence support it, violent criminal acts that result in the taking of human life will be treated as murder."
The grand jury which issues the indictment needs to find that the defendant intended to commit the armed robbery and that it was the "proximate cause" of the accomplice's death.
"Proximate cause, in a nutshell, means the defendant's conduct was a significant factual cause of the death," Falkoff said. "It doesn't require that he have pulled the trigger, it just requires that he was a significant part of the chain of events that causes the death."
A jury must make the same findings, but "beyond a reasonable doubt."
There are some states where the courts refuse to apply the felony murder theory statute if the person, like Ransom, was an accomplice to the crime, said Eric Anderson, a criminal law professor at the University of Illinois.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that felony murder applies, even when an accomplice is killed. The case they heard began involved a murder in Kankakee County in 1996. Cody Dekens and Keith Pecchenino pulled guns on undercover officers and tried to rob the officers who were trying to buy 300 doses of LSD for $750, according to court documents. Both Dekens and Pecchenino were shot. Pecchenino died. Dekens was charged and convicted of his murder.
There were two other cases where the Illinois Supreme Court decided to hold a defendant accountable for the death of his accomplice, said Todd Haugh, assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago Kent College of Law. The most recent in 2006.
"For what it's worth, the Illinois rule allowing for murder liability for the killing ... of a co-defendant is by far the minority position among the states," Falkoff said. "Most have rejected murder liability in that situation, but the Illinois Supreme Court pretty recently decided a case that explicitly allows it."
Muse is scheduled for sentencing by Circuit Judge Mike Cook.
The law professors agree that Cook can consider the fact Muse didn't actually shoot Ransom when he imposes sentence. Muse, now 55, could face from 20 to 60 years in prison.
"The Illinois statute defining first-degree murder says that it's an aggravating factor if the murdered individual was actually killed by the defendant, so he'd be subject to harsher punishment if he actually killed the person," Johnson said. "Which means he's subject to less severe punishment by virtue of the fact that he didn't actually kill the person."
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2570.