Fetterman and Oz Battled Over What to Do with Felony Murder

By Madeline Olds, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of unsplash.com

As the final days before the election came to a close, a topic closely watched by both Democrats and Republicans was crime.[1] Violent crime has increased over this past year and has become one of the key voting issues amongst all parties.[2] With crime in consideration, both Pennsylvania Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Pennsylvania Republican candidate Mehmet Oz debated over one key issue: felony murder.[3]

Felony murder, or murder in the second degree under Pennsylvania law, is the unlawful killing of another human being while engaged in the commission of or attempted commission of one of the following felonies: robbery, burglary, arson, rape, and kidnapping.[4] Felony murder carries a mandatory life without parole sentence in Pennsylvania.[5] In Pennsylvania, a criminal homicide of the second degree, or felony murder, is committed while the defendant was engaged as a principal or as an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.[6] This means that even if an individual does not commit the murder or have any idea a murder has been committed, as long as they were an accomplice to the felony, they will be charged with felony murder.[7] Pennsylvania has the second highest number of adult offenders in prison for life without parole.[8] Further, Pennsylvania ranks only behind Louisiana with the number of people sentenced to life without parole for felony murder.[9]

The issue of felony murder was greatly discussed during the Fetterman and Oz race for Senate. Fetterman supported ending the mandatory life without parole sentence, specifically for those who were accomplices to the felony and did not commit the murder.[10] Fetterman criticized felony murder for its racial inequities.[11] Oz believed that Fetterman was being soft on crime and supported keeping the mandatory life without parole standard for felony murder, whether the principal or accomplice.[12]

Part of the reason felony murder was specifically in the spotlight with Fetterman is due to his clemency efforts on behalf of the Horton brothers, who received commutation in February 2021 for their felony murder sentence.[13] The Horton brothers were on a beer run in 1977 and their friend Robert Leaf asked for a ride[14]. The Horton brothers went and picked Leaf up, and unbeknownst to them, Leaf had just killed a man during the course of a robbery.[15] The Horton brothers were arrested and charged with felony murder, receiving a life without parole sentence.[16] The Horton brothers were model inmates during their incarceration and fought through many appeals to be freed.[17] Fetterman has led the state’s Board of Pardons since 2019 as part of his duties as lieutenant governor.[18] Fetterman’s efforts led to the commutation of the Horton brothers, who have been working with Fetterman on his campaign.[19]  

The debate over felony murder also comes right after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the challenge to the felony murder law.[20] The suit brought by inmate Tyree Rivers against the Pennsylvania Parole Board citing that life without parole for felony murder violated the Eighth Amendment and was racially disparate based on academic studies.[21]However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the Court did not have the power to decide whether people sentenced for felony murder should be eligible for parole.[22] That is an issue for the state legislature, which has tried to pass multiple bills relating to felony murder but have failed each time.[23]

The Pennsylvania District Attorney Association supported the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision stating that the Court has to consider the family members of victims as they are critical components in the discussion.[24] The Association further stated they may be open to changing the law so it’s no longer mandatory sentence but emphasizes that the people involved in felony murder, even if it is just the felony, were planning violent crimes and planned a significant role in the murder.[25] Many organizations such as the Sentencing Project are against life sentences for those that are charged with felony murder. [26]

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/10/31/violent-crime-is-a-key-midterm-voting-issue-but-what-does-the-data-say/

[2] Id.  

[3] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-election/fettermans-clemency-crusade-draws-soft-crime-attacks-oz-pennsylvania-s-rcna49055

[4] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/felony_murder_rule


[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/10/25/fetterman-and-oz-battle-over-pennsylvania-s-felony-murder-law

[9] Id.

[10] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-election/fettermans-clemency-crusade-draws-soft-crime-attacks-oz-pennsylvania-s-rcna49055

[11] Id.

[12] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-election/fettermans-clemency-crusade-draws-soft-crime-attacks-oz-pennsylvania-s-rcna49055

[13] Id.

[14] https://billypenn.com/2022/02/21/horton-brothers-philadelphia-wrongful-conviction-reentry-antiviolence-cure-plan/

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/10/25/fetterman-and-oz-battle-over-pennsylvania-s-felony-murder-law

[19] https://billypenn.com/2022/02/21/horton-brothers-philadelphia-wrongful-conviction-reentry-antiviolence-cure-plan/

[20] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/10/25/fetterman-and-oz-battle-over-pennsylvania-s-felony-murder-law

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/10/25/fetterman-and-oz-battle-over-pennsylvania-s-felony-murder-law

[26] Id.

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