Demetrius Howard is on California’s Death Row for a crime in which he did not kill anyone. He was never accused of firing a shot, but based on California’s felony murder rule then in effect, he was eligible for a death sentence due to his participation in the crime, reported The Appeal.
The felony murder rule was revised in 2018 so that participants in a crime do not face a death penalty unless they directly killed, or encouraged the killing, or otherwise “acted with reckless indifference to human life” when commit- ting their crime.
Howard has maintained during his trial and over time that he never intended for anyone to be killed during the crime. However, Howard is ineligible for re-sentencing under the new felony murder rule because his jury found he had acted with reckless indifference to human life, according to a Death Penalty Information Center online post by The Appeal.
“I am no saint or some angel. I’ve made my share of wrongs, but I haven’t killed no one [or] told anyone to kill someone,” Howard wrote to The Appeal.
Howard’s case stems from a 1995 conviction in which an- other man, Mitchell Funches, shot and killed Sherry Collins during a robbery. Funches received a sentence of life with- out parole in his trial; Howard landed on Death Row in his court trial.
Nineteen other states have similar laws, allowing capital punishment for people who are not charged with murder nor the intention to murder. Texas has executed at least six prisoners when there was undisputed evidence that they never participated in the actual murder, according to the article.
Howard’s conviction was delivered in San Bernardino County, which is one of a group of five Southern California counties nicknamed “the new death belt,” because from 2010 through 2015 those counties imposed more death sentences than 99.5% of U.S. counties, according to The Appeal. At the time of Howard’s trial, there were 10 active death penalty cases in San Bernardino County.
“That’s higher than I’ve ever seen it. At any given time in the past the number pending seemed to be about six,” said Dennis Kottmeier, then District Attorney, referencing the number of active death row cases in his county. He attributed the high numbers to state laws passed in 1990 and 1993 that expanded the list of crimes eligible for capital punishment, as well as higher violent crime rates.
According to a 2017 report by the California Attorney General, San Bernardino’s high number of capital punishment cases did not lower the county’s overall murder rate, which has remained higher than average from 1997 through 2017, despite a declining rate statewide.