In California, three young men are serving life in prison. They were all found guilty of murder even though only one them actually did the killing and the other two swear they didn't even know he had a weapon let alone that he would kill somebody.
How does that happen? It's the law. The felony murder rule law - but this old law is under new attack - as well as vigorous defense - because of cases like Brandon Hein - a teenager who went looking for marijuana and ended up in prison for life.
The felony murder law, which goes all the way back to old English law, treats people who are guilty of lesser crimes as murderers if they are with murderers when the murder occurs, reports Dan Rather.
Hein was 17 in 1995 when he and some teen-age friends got into in a fistfight. One of those friends pulled out a knife…and ended up killing another teen-ager. All four are now serving life sentences.
It began on the kind of day dreaded by parents of troubled teen-agers. Five of the boys were drinking alcohol and driving around their mostly safe suburbs near Los Angeles.
In the afternoon, they stopped in a parking lot. One of them grabbed a wallet, which turned out to be empty, from inside a car. The owner, a mother playing nearby with her two kids, cornered them and demanded her wallet returned. Another boy cursed at her and allegedly hit her car.
The five drove off – this time to find some marijuana. They went to the home of the neighborhood drug dealer – another high school teen-ager named Mike McLoren, who sold marijuana from a one-room structure in his mother's backyard. McLoren's friend and neighbor, 15-year old Jimmy Farris, was with him that day.
One of the teens stayed with the pickup trick; the others, including Hein, Jason Holland, 18, and his 15-year-old brother Micah, approached Mike McLoren's shed, which was called "the fort."
Jason Holland says he was drunk and lagging behind the others and he did not see how the argument between McLoren and his brother started.
"By the time I get in there," he says "step into the door, he and Mike McLoren are standing, like, face to face, you know, and, you know, there was clearly a problem there.
"They were already in a argument, you know. But there was no words being exchanged by the time I got in there. Immediately when I got in there, I stepped in there, they just dropped their heads and started fighting."
Brandon Hein jumped into the fray; so did Jason, who says he was trying to protect his brother Micah from the bigger and stronger McLoren.
"Mike McLoren was on top of my brother," Jason says, "he's hammering him in the back of the neck, and I'm telling him to get off him, get off him. You know, I'm trying to pull him off of him. I'm hitting him, I'm yelling at him. He's not listening, so I pulled a knife and I stabbed him.
"After two times of pricking him in the back and he wasn't getting off my brother, I stabbed him in the chest." After stabbing McLoren, Jason stabbed McLoren's friend Jimmy Farris. McLoren survived; Farris did not.
Mike Latin and Jeff Semow, the two Los Angeles deputy district attorneys who prosecuted the case, charged each teen under the felony murder rule under the theory that they went to the place where the murder occurred with the intention of robbing the victims.
"I guarantee you this," says Latin. "That stabber would not have been there if he didn't have the bravado that the accompaniment of the other four young boys gave him. He wouldn't have been there."
Semow says the rule is designed as a warning to those who would participate in gang robberies. "They are not going to be able to hide behind the defense of saying, 'But the other guy actually pulled the trigger,' if, in fact, the victim is killed," he says.
For the felony murder rule to apply, prosecutors had to prove that a felony occurred. Without that, the felony murder rule could not apply.
All the defendants deny intending to rob the marijuana: "Going there to buy some weed," says Jason Holland. "We were just partying, having a good time."
But the jury did not believe him. Instead, jurors were convinced the snatching of the mother's wallet earlier in the day indicated they also plotted to rob drug dealer Mike McLoren.
The teen-agers' families were stunned when they heard the verdicts and the sentences: Jason Holland and Brandon Hein were convicted of murder and got life without the possibility of parole. Micah was convicted of murder and got 29 years to life.
The fourth defendant, Anthony Miliotti, 17, got life without the possibility of parole even though he stood at the door and never got into the fight. The fifth teen, who stayed with the truck, pled guilty and was sentenced to nine years.
Brandon's parents, Gene Hein and Pat Kraetch say their son is being punished for something he did not do. "I don't know over the years how many people have come up to me now, adults, who have gotten past that scary 18- to 25-year-old age and said, 'But for the grace of God, it could have been me,'" says his mother.
Jeff Laden speaks for the group when he charges that their boys were punished not for what they did but for who was killed: the son of a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"It's about a police officer's son who died. And the only way they could convict all these kids was use the Felony Murder Rule," Laden says.
Don't tell that to Jimmy Farris's parents. Jim Farris, his father, says, "The fact that I'm a policeman has nothing to do with anything. I just happen to be a policeman whose son was murdered. That's it."
Jimmy's mother, Judy, asks, "How much is too much time for killing someone? For taking away and changing our lives completely, forever?"
As for Jimmy Ferris's friend, Mike McLoren, he was never prosecuted for selling drugs. He still lives at home. When 60 Minutes II visited, he refused to speak with correspondents or crew.
No one feels worse about the punishment of the others than Jason Holland. "I didn't try to kill him, I didn't mean to kill him," he says. "But he died. I can't give it back, but I took responsibility for it. I thought that was the right thing to do, and I thought that they would do the right thing, but they didn't. They came after us. And they got my brother and my two buddies. And we're all doing life now. And they're doing life for something they didn't do."
England, where the felony rule began, took it off the books in 1957, believing it is wrong to punish someone who intends to rob as severely as someone who intends to kill. Many states have followed suit; California is not one of them.
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.