Yes, You Can Be Convicted of Murder Even Though You Weren't There

By William Peacock, Esq. on November 21, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Nope, it wasn't a planned hit. In fact, we'd venture a guess that Ryan Johnson didn't intend for anyone to get hurt, especially not one of the two men he sent, armed, to carry out a home invasion robbery. Still, under the "provocative act doctrine," even an absentee co-conspirator can be held accountable when things don't go according to plan.

Indeed, things really didn't go to plan.

Johnson sent two accomplices to carry out a robbery of a rival marijuana dealer's home. The armed individuals intimidated the house's occupants, and ate their takeout Thai food. One of the accomplices, who warned the victim that he was "quick on the trigger, homie" and asked, "You ever seen 'Pulp Fiction,' homie?," forced the victim to the back room, where the home owner picked up a gun, shot one perpetrator, and beat the remaining armed robber until he lost consciousness.

Johnson Was the "Shot-Caller"

While his accomplices were failing miserably at the home invasion robbery (and one was bleeding to death), Johnson was bragging about his plan to a female friend, who noted that he seemed to be "pretty proud of himself that he was the shot caller," an unfortunate, yet appropriate term for the mastermind under the circumstances.

Provocative Act Murder Doctrine

Johnson argued, on appeal, that he lacked the requisite state of mind for first-degree murder.

Judge Yegan, however, was not impressed, noting that when a mastermind sends his accomplices to do his bidding, and one of those accomplices engages in provocative conduct sufficient to cause a victim to kill in self-defense, "malice is implied by law and imputed to the 'mastermind' despite his absence from the scene of the crime."

A controlling case, from the California Supreme Court, supports this holding. In Taylor v. Superior Court, the court held that a getaway driver could be convicted of first degree murder when one of his accomplices was killed in self-defense during a liquor store robbery. And though Johnson was not a wheelman, he was something more culpable: the mastermind.

"If a getaway driver, not actually present inside the building where the robbery takes place, has provocative conduct first degree murder liability, surely an absent "mastermind" of the robbery also has such liability," Judge Yegan noted.

Takeaway: If You Want Something Done Right ...

Criminal liability attaches either way, and to the same degree. Not that we'd ever advocate criminal behavior, but this does fit the adage about doing it yourself. After all, the victim was only able to grab his gun and subdue the home invaders because one of them took his eyes off of the victim.

On this same note, Judge Yegan noted that his holding was sound public policy, as to hold otherwise "could also encourage a criminal planner to employ accomplices to do his bidding in his absence to shield himself from the application of the provocative act murder doctrine."

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