Any parent would agree that young people can do impulsive and thoughtless things. But what if one of their stupidly spontaneous acts accidently turns deadly? Should society give that young person special consideration? Should it depend on the kid’s past good or bad character? Should the justice system treat them the same as a career criminal?
The case that caused these questions to pop into my mind comes from Greensboro, N.C., and involves a young woman named Janet Danahey. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that what happened to Janet could happen to any one of our kids.
It was Valentine’s Day 2002, and since Janet and her boyfriend, Thad, had recently (and amicably) broken up, the then-23-year-old got together with two girlfriends that night to play cards and drink some wine. Their circle of friends was always playing pranks on each other, and this night the three girls — Janet, Nicole and Adrianne — schemed about what kind of trick they could pull on Thad.
They decided to sabotage his car and visited a grocery store looking for fish oil or something smelly to pour into the young man’s fresh air vent. They bought a bottle of clam juice and headed to Thad’s apartment building. When they discovered his car wasn’t there, Janet grabbed charcoal lighter fluid and set a small fire atop an old futon outside Thad’s door. They could hear people inside the apartment, and the idea was to knock and run, leaving Thad’s roommates to stamp out the flames.
The night was windy, and the fire soon engulfed the apartment building. Four people were killed — sisters Rachel and Donna Llewellyn, ages 21 and 24; Ryan Bek, 25; and Elizabeth Harris, 20.
Janet never stopped to think what heartache would result from that childish and senseless act.
Janet admitted to police and to the father of Elizabeth Harris that she had set the fire and begged for forgiveness. But she was soon faced with the cold reality of North Carolina’s felony murder statute, which dozens of other states also have on the books. Under the felony murder rule, if anyone is killed during the commission of a felony — in this case, arson — the perpetrator of the felony can be charged with murder and sentenced to death. It holds even if the victim’s death was an accident.
Janet had to choose between pleading guilty and receiving life in prison with no chance of parole or going to trial where, if found guilty, she would automatically get the death penalty. She pleaded guilty.
(The felony murder rule is applied differently depending on the jurisdiction, but generally speaking, the underlying felony must present a “foreseeable danger to life.” In some cases, accomplices can also face the ultimate penalty, too — if they exhibited “extreme indifference to human life” — but in Janet’s case, her two girlfriends never spoke to her again and were not charged. Janet assumed full responsibility.)
As you ponder this tragedy, realize that before this happened Janet had been an exemplary child. As a high school student, she was described as “sweet, responsible and very respectful.” Janet had won the Girl Scouts top award, was active in several clubs, including the Young Christian Society. She played the viola, carried the Olympic torch during part of the run to Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympic Games and made the dean’s list in college. None of this, of course, absolves her of blame, but the record shows Janet Danahey made one awful decision on one horrific night.
On the other hand, as prosecutors rightfully pointed out in court, Janet was an intelligent college graduate — a woman who should have known that using an accelerant and setting a fire on a windy night could result in catastrophic damage. And, the state maintained, Janet and her friends exhibited complete indifference by leaving the scene without making sure the fire was actually put out.
Now, 10 years later, Janet’s lawyers note that she has been a model prisoner, and they have filed a petition for clemency with the outgoing governor to have her sentence reduced to time served.
The attorneys call what happened on that February night a “joke ... a foolish prank. A thoughtless act, but with no malicious intent.” They have asked for an adjustment “to a sentence that is out of all proportion to the conduct involved.” And one of Janet’s most visible supporters is Elizabeth Harris’ father, Robert, who said he forgave Janet years ago. His words are part of the clemency petition:
“I still picture Janet, standing with outreached hands, handcuffed, trembling, shaking almost violently, crying intensely, speaking almost incoherently, ‘These are the hands that are responsible for Beth’s death.’ My reactions were instinctive. I went over to her, held her tightly ... (and) whispered ... ‘I forgive you, Janet,’ several times.”
At this writing, there have been no comments from other victims’ family members, so there is no way to know if they will challenge the clemency request.
As one North Carolina newspaper pal wrote me recently, “Two-and-a-half years per life doesn’t seem like much punishment for a deliberate act of arson that went bad.”
I guess I agree with that, but I have this nagging feeling that our felony murder laws should be adjusted for people like Janet. I think only career criminals should get life in prison with no chance at parole.