Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, August 30, 2013


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Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Felony-Murder Rule




California’s version of the felony-murder rule, which permits a first degree murder conviction where a fellow perpetrator kills the victim for reasons independent of the underlying felony, is constitutional, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The judges affirmed the denial of writ relief in the case of James F. Cavitt, serving a life sentence for the murder of Betty McKnight, the stepmother of Cavitt’s girlfriend. Cavitt admitted that he and his girlfriend robbed McKnight’s home and left her hogtied and face down with a sheet around her head.

But he claimed that the victim was alive when he left the house, more than 20 minutes before McKnight was found dead by police. The defense speculated that the girlfriend, acting out of personal hatred rather than as part of the robbery plot, killed her stepmother after Cavitt had fled.

No Defense

The trial judge ruled that the theory, even if true, would not establish a defense under the felony-murder rule, and declined to allow the defense to present it.

McKnight was convicted, and the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court affirmed.

Senior Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the district judge correctly deferred to the state courts and denied habeas corpus relief.

The test adopted by the Supreme Court—that “there must be a logical nexus – i.e., more than mere coincidence of time and place – between the felony and the act resulting in death before the felony-murder rule may be applied to a nonkiller”—is not unconstitutionally vague, Fisher wrote.

California requires that the nexus be proven by objective fact, Fisher explained, writing:

“Such objective facts were plentiful here. Even under Cavitt’s theory of the case – that Mianta killed her stepmother for reasons unrelated to the robbery and after Cavitt left –Mianta was in a position to do so because Cavitt and Williams had already beaten Betty, bound her, covered her face with a sheet, fastened the sheet with duct tape and given Mianta cover by allowing her to blame the killing on the ‘robbers.’ There is a clear connection between the felony Cavitt set out to commit and Betty McKnight’s subsequent death.”

No Violation

The judge went on to acknowledge that earlier California cases suggested a more stringent test, one that might have allowed Cavitt to argue his independent-motive theory. But no case ever actually held that, so the state Supreme Court’s ruling was not an “unforeseeable and retroactive judicial expansion of narrow and precise statutory language” whose application would have violated due process under Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 347, 352 (1964), Fisher said.

The case is Cavitt v. Cullen, 10-16988.


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