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When Standards of Proof are Too High for the Public Good

On the surface, the facts of a criminal case may seem to warrant a certain charge or point toward a likely conviction. However, the laws under which wrongdoers are prosecuted can sometimes be complex, making criminal conduct difficult to prove. A recent Georgia verdict, where a prosecutor chose to charge a criminal with involuntary manslaughter instead of felony murder, demonstrates this scenario and how the burden of proof for some crimes is so high it works against the public good.

Felony Murder and Burden of Proof

As a general rule, if someone dies during, or as a result of, a felony criminal act, the perpetrator may be charged with felony murder. This crime is included in the criminal statutes for 46 states, although the remaining four have all but eliminated it. While some state laws list the underlying felonies that may result in murder, such as burglary or kidnapping, Georgia’s statute is generally applicable. However, a prosecutor must show a direct causal connection between the commission of the felony and the death under Georgia law.

To show that a criminal defendant is guilty of felony murder, according to the elements defined in the related statute, the prosecutor bears the burden of proof. Prosecutors introduce evidence, like witnesses or medical reports, to persuade a jury to convict a defendant of the crime with which he or she was charged. Depending on the state law, the standards or requirements for proving guilt can be excessive, such as for felony murder in Georgia. As a result, a Georgia prosecutor may seek a lesser charge in order to make a more solid case, which leaves less room for reasonable doubt among the jurors.

Case in Point

In a tragic turn of events, 19-year-old Susan Weaver died from a lethal combination of liquid methadone and alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, early last year. Joseph Taylor, who sold her the drugs and helped her take them the night she overdosed, pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in March of this year, but he could be out of prison and back on the streets in as little as seven years.

The girl’s mother, Karen Aulicky, told local papers that she wanted county prosecutors to charge Taylor with felony murder. Although both his admissions and forensic evidence directly linked Taylor to the drugs that caused Weaver’s death, he was only charged with involuntary manslaughter. While the prosecutor advised Aulicky that the lesser offense gave them a better chance for a guilty verdict, he also had other reasons for this decision.

Georgia’s Burden of Proof

Because of the circumstances of Weaver’s death, which was caused by ingesting illegal drugs distributed by Taylor, there were only two choices for prosecution under existing Georgia criminal statutes. According to the district attorney who oversaw this case, Pete Skandalakis, determining the charge came down to whether the prosecution could meet the requirements for either involuntary manslaughter or felony murder. Since the burden of proving that Taylor committed felony murder was so much higher, and extremely difficult in this situation, the prosecutor opted for involuntary manslaughter.

To establish a case for felony murder against Taylor, the state must have shown that he engaged in the illegal act of distributing drugs and knew that they were extremely dangerous or that consuming them under particular conditions could result in death. Even if there was evidence that gave insight into a drug dealer’s intent or knowledge, persuading the jury that a criminal like Taylor should be charged with felony murder is another issue and could have resulted in a not guilty verdict. Taylor is behind bars for now, but if Georgia’s statutes were clearer, he might have been locked up for a longer stretch of time.

Florida Law Inspires Change

Florida has a homicide statute that specifically applies to deaths caused by controlled substance distribution and ingestion. For a charge of murder, the law only requires a person to have sold illegal drugs, which can be proven to be the ultimate cause of a user’s death. District Attorney Skandalakis, in an interview with a local paper, said that he finds the Florida statute less muddy overall, because its standard of proof is much lower than Georgia’s law. A statute like Florida’s would have put Taylor in prison for many more years.

As a result, Skandalakis is spearheading an effort to draft a new Georgia law that mirrors Florida’s homicide statute. With the help of other legal professionals and the support of a state legislator, this draft will hopefully be introduced as a bill to the Georgia General Assembly. Using the tragic example of Weaver’s death and her mother’s struggle to hold the drug dealer responsible, this bill could eventually become a law that helps victim’s families avoid the pain of watching a person responsible for death walk free too soon.

Working for the Public Good

Laws that are clear and written with the right intentions work for the public good, which involves keeping people safe and secure by putting criminals behind bars. Statues that force prosecutors to weed through muddy language and provide evidence of knowledge or intent can be so complex that they end up adversely impacting the criminal process. This is the case with the felony murder law in Georgia, which for prosecutors and advocates has the potential for reform with enough support.

Criminal acts can be devastating for everyone involved. If you or a family member has been charged with a drug crime or another offense, contact a Georgia criminal law attorney immediately. A lawyer experienced in criminal defense will be able to explain the complex Georgia statutes that may apply to your case and the crimes a prosecutor might charge against you.