Sunday, February 06, 2005

Child Killers Freed

ALMOST 300 convicted murderers, many of them child- killers, could be freed from prison years before their sentences are due to end after a state court ruling that has outraged victims’ families. Four men convicted of killing children have been released this month in Washington State, on the US Pacific coast. Their murder convictions were quashed after a court’s decision that a certain type of murder charge used by prosecutors for more than 30 years was invalid. At least 280 similar cases are likely to be sent back to courts across the state, with defence lawyers arguing that convictions should be overturned and the men released. The ruling, which has outraged prosecutors and relatives of the victims, was made last November, but only this month has it led to early releases. One man, David Crane, was released 40 years early, having served less than one third of a 60-year sentence for killing his three-year-old nephew in 1986. Another, Peter Helb, is scheduled for early release in August after being convicted of killing his girlfriend’s 20- month-old daughter in 1982. The ruling by the state’s Supreme Court concerned Washington State’s felony murder law. Since 1976, prosecutors had been allowed to win a murder conviction if a death was the unintended result of assault. In most other parts of the United States, similar cases would usually bring a manslaughter charge, which carries a lighter sentence. The state Supreme Court ruled that an assault cannot be used as the basis for a second-degree felony murder charge. It upheld a lower court’s ruling to apply the ruling retrospec- tively. Thus all murderers convicted between 1976 and 2003 under the felony murder law can now apply to have their verdicts overturned. “When a court overturns 30 years of precedent to set hundreds of murderers free, that’s a terrible ruling,” Seth Fine, a prosecutor, said. “The court doesn’t seem to recognise the impact this is having on victims’ family members, how wrenching it is to have these cases reopened years or decades after they were closed.” Prosecutors face the option of filing new charges of manslaughter, which carries a lesser penalty; finding another felony on which to base a murder charge; or trying to prove that the killing was intentional, a daunting task years after the fact. In cases where children were shaken to death, intent is especially difficult to prove.