JUST BECAUSE prosecutors can charge a 14-year-old boy with murder in the death of an Oakland store owner doesn't mean they should.
According to an Oakland Police account, the teen and two girls entered the Oak Knoll Market at the base of the Oakland Hills, just off Interstate 580, during a time when they should have been in school. In the past, the boy had knocked over display cases, harassed store employees and refused to pay for items he claimed cost too much. The owner had banned him from the store.
Yet the youth returned and attempted to take two bottles of vodka. The shop owner, 57-year-old Dong Suk Kang, confronted him. According to police, the teen shoved and punched Kang, then fled. The store owner jumped in his Toyota and attempted to follow the youth. Along the way, he had a heart attack and died.
It's a tragic story. And, indeed, the law gives Alameda County District Attorney's Office discretion to file a murder charge. The state penal code states that if someone is killed during the commission of certain types of felonies, the person committed the crime may be charged with murder. This is the case even if the death was an accident.
Arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary and kidnapping are among the offenses that trigger the felony murder law. The law may apply if an individual dies during the actual commission of the felony act or during the perpetrator's flight from the crime scene.
In January, the state Court of Appeal ruled that it is not a violation of due process for prosecutors to apply the felony murder rule when a death is caused by a negligent act committed during an active burglary. In that case, Cole Wilkins of Long Beach was fleeing after committing a burglary. A stove fell off the back of his pickup truck. Another driver swerved to avoid the appliance, crashed into a big rig carrying cement and was crushed to death. The court upheld Wilkins' sentence of 25 years to life.
The letter of the law is clear. A person may be held liable for a homicide resulting from his negligent felonious actions -- even if murder was not his intent.
Yet prosecutors must always exercise judgment when deciding whether to file charges and which charges to seek. We question the murder charge against a high school freshman. Officials said they are unable to comment on the specifics of the Oakland case because the youth is a juvenile.
The murder charge clearly stems from the fact that the store owner died during the teen's flight from the burglary. The boy is essentially being accused of causing a death by heart attack. The confrontation undoubtedly caused Kang undue stress. Yet we don't know what health factors may have also played a role in his death.
This teen committed an atrocious crime. But murder? It may fall within the letter of the law, but not, in our view, within its intent.