There are two big stories in the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson v. State. The first is that the rule of causation for felony murder that had been in place for thirty years has been changed. The second is that the majority has provided a framework for any appellant to use in future cases to use to attack the concept of precedent itself. While it probably is intended as a tool for the State to use against persons charged and convicted of crimes, it is worth a try on your client’s behalf. Precedent doesn’t mean what it used to mean, and by “used to” I mean before the Jackson opinion came out.
This opinion has several moving parts. So many, in fact, that I wrote up a State v. Jackson mindmap.pdf for use in interpreting and following it.
Facts and Procedural Posture
Factually, the case reads like a case out of a law school exam. Carlester Jackson, Warren Smith, and Jerold Daniels decided to rob a drug dealer. Daniels approached the intended victim with a handgun with Jackson nearby in a getaway car. The victim and Daniels exchanged gunfire and Daniels was killed by the victim who was acting in self defense. The State charged Jackson with felony murder for causing the death of co-conspirator Daniels while all three were engaged in the felony act of armed robbery.
In short, the issue in the case was whether a co-defendant can be charged with, prosecuted, and convicted for the death of a co-defendant at the hands of a victim who kills another co-defendant in self-defense.
The trial court followed precedent and dismissed the charges. The State appealed the dismissal specifically to ask the Supreme Court to overrule Crane v. State, the case that said that such a prosecution could not be brought.
The Supreme Court reversed the trial court, overruled Crane, and set up a new test — a meta-test — to use to determine which precedents are worthy of standing and which ones ought to go.
Justice Nahmias writes for a divided court on behalf of a majority where he is joined by Justices Melton, Hines, and Carley. He starts off by saying that this is an easy case calling for straightforward methodology – always a sign that something radical is about to happen. He then moves to a definition of proximate cause straight out of Black’s Law Dictionary: “that which, in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces injury, and without which the result would not have occurred.” He explains that, when you rob a drug dealer, one of the things you can reasonably expect is that he will be armed and will likely shoot at you or one of your teammates. Given that such is the case, you should pay if you rob a drug dealer and somebody dies, even if he was an adult just like you who decided to join you in some crime. The analysis is reasonable (you could argue it the other way, but it is a reasonable way of thinking). The tricky part is the thirty years of precedent he must overcome to put this reasoning in place.
Crane v. State
Justice Nahmias basically trashes Crane as not being very well written or analyzed. He scoffs at it as a page and a half opinion and attacks the Court’s “binary” way of applying the rule of lenity. He points out that proximate cause does not need to be either direct or indirect. It can be any number of things in between – so the rule of lenity should never have entered the picture. Of course, his job is not finished. Trashing the thinking of his predecessors on the bench – all seven of them in an unanimous opinion – is just a good way to warm up. Those portraits of the justices in the courtroom have eyes, but they aren’t going to come down and get him.
He moves on to describe how the Courts have never really followed Crane anyway. Though it is interesting to note that he does so by reference to vehicular homicide cases, where presumably chain reactions are part and parcel of just about any fact pattern. He also does so by reference to cases where some innocent person got killed such as a firefighter who responded to the scene of an arson, a store owner who had a heart attack while his place was being burglarized, or an innocent bystander struck by a bullet.
He never does so by reference to another case like this one, where a co-conspirator is shot and killed by a victim in the act of self-defense. In fact, in the two instances where there has been such a fact pattern – Crane and Hyman – the convictions were reversed.
In fact, his logic has the feeling of soundness but isn’t really. It goes like this: there are other homicide cases where people have been convicted of felony murder. Therefore, you should have felony murder in this case, too. It’s not that the courts have been ignoring Crane, it’s just that Crane is only relevant with cases with materially similar facts to Crane.
Then it really takes a turn into new territory
Justice Nahmias’s Discussion of Stare Decisis
Quoting from a concurring opinion of Justice Roberts of the United States Supreme Court, Justice Nahmias says that stare decisis is a “principle of policy” and can be set aside by balancing the “importance of having the question decided against the importance of having it decided right” (He really says this. I’m not making it up). Of course, it’s a good thing far all that is good in city of Metropolis, that Justice Nahmias knows right from wrong with such reliability. But for you mere mortals out there, he also has a four factor test, that now has the force of law, to guide us on which precedent is real and which precedent was the product of justices who weren’t as smart as the titans now on our Court. Those factors include:
- the age of the precedent;
- the reliance interests at stake;
- the workability of the decision; and
- the soundness of the reasoning.
Applying these factors to Crane, and working with an implicit assumption that Crane was incorrect, it turns out that Crane is one of those precedents that shouldn’t get in the way of law enforcement.
While it gets him where he wants to go and is pretty prosecution friendly right now, I am happy to have this handy dandy little meta-test that I can use as a tool the next time I find a case whose holding I don’t think is very sound (and believe me, it happens all the time). In fact, there are many cases where I would ordinarily not have much to say because the precedent is against me. Not anymore!
The dissenting opinion is pretty spot on. We now live in a state where precedent doesn’t really mean very much anymore. The thing is that almost any decision can be run through this test and come out the other way as long as you can articulate a good argument that it is unsound and unworkable.
Of course, I think if I could get the secret decoder ring I’d learn that this new meta-analysis to attack precedent just works for precedent that the State finds to be unsound. Kind of like here where the State took a case up on appeal, not because the caselaw wasn’t against them, but because they wanted the caselaw to be different. Maybe this cool new Supreme Court rule will work for me, too. In fact, this case may do more to set back Westlaw and Lexis than Google scholar has done. Why buy legal research when half the cases don’t really cut it as law anymore?