In October 2000, Antoine Parris killed Blase Kelly outside a Rochester grocery store by bludgeoning his face with a gun and then shooting him six times at point-blank range. Parris later told investigators that he was afraid Kelly was going to attack him over some money that Parris owed.
As was often done at the time, Monroe County prosecutors charged Parris with murder under two different theories of the case: One charge in the indictment was based on the murder being “intentional” and a separate charge was based on it constituting “depraved indifference to human life.”
Often, there are very legitimate reasons for prosecutors to allege two alternative prosecutorial theories and then letting a jury decide which one is more appropriate based on the facts that emerge during the trial. There also are strategic advantages to this approach: Juries may believe they are compromising on the “depraved indifference” count (since it sounds less serious than intentional murder), though in reality the charges carry the exact same penalty.
However, the Parris case illustrates what can go wrong with this approach. First, the jury found Parris not guilty of intentional murder, while finding him guilty of the “depraved indifference” count. Second, the law applying to this situation began to evolve in 2003, culminating with a 2006 state appellate court ruling that “depraved indifference” is a type of reckless crime and cannot apply to a truly intentional murder.
As a result, on June 14, an appellate court ruled that Parris’ act did not meet the definition of “depraved indifference,” since the facts only supported that it was an intentional murder. But since Parris was found not guilty of intentional murder at his trial, the concept of double jeopardy prevented him from being tried again by New York State on that charge.
Commenting on the ruling, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said: “Because of this legal loophole, in 2019, our office is constrained from maintaining the justice the victim’s family and our community is owed.” In other words, there is nothing her office can do to stop Parris from being released into the community since his murder can only be interpreted as “intentional.”
Doorley is right about her office’s inability to do anything in this matter. However, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling—decided just three days after the New York appellate ruling in the Parris case—points to a potential solution.
On June 17, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Gamble v. United States to uphold a lightly used but long-standing exception to the concept of double jeopardy. In reaffirming what is called the “dual-sovereignty doctrine,” the court upheld that the federal government and a state government are considered separate sovereign powers for purposes of criminal prosecutions. This allows a federal government to prosecute someone even after that person was found not guilty of crimes stemming from the same act in a state prosecution.
As recently as last year, observers predicted that the dual-sovereignty doctrine would soon be struck down by the Supreme Court. But in what ultimately became a 7-2 ruling (with conservative justices like Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas arguing on the same side as liberal justices like Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor), the court decided that double jeopardy does not apply where the federal government prosecutes someone who was found not guilty in a state court (or vice versa).
This approach is used rarely but can be critical in preventing an injustice. For instance, it enabled the conviction of two Los Angeles police officers in the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King after they were found not guilty of serious crimes in a county court. It also helped secure a guilty plea in the 2015 killing of Walter Scott, a nationally prominent South Carolina case in which a white police officer shot a black motorist multiple times in the back after having stopped him for a broken taillight.
More recently—and closer to home—Charlie Tan last year was sentenced to 20 years in prison for federal weapons charges related to the murder of Tan’s father in their Pittsford home. That federal prosecution became necessary after Tan’s murder trial in Monroe County ended in a mistrial and the case was then surprisingly—and inexplicably—dismissed by Judge James Piampiano. Perhaps Piampiano’s judgment had not recovered from celebrating his election two days earlier to the State Supreme Court. Piampiano was later censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct for inappropriately granting media interviews during that case and threatening to have the prosecutor handcuffed. Despite Piampiano’s conduct, a miscarriage of justice would have been irreversible if not for the option of resorting to a federal prosecution.
This logic also applies to the Parris case. Even though the murder happened almost 19 years ago, a “willful” or “deliberate” killing qualifies as a “murder in the first degree,” and there is no statute of limitations for this crime in federal law.
While there may be some legal or policy reasons for federal prosecutors not to step in, it is not clear what those may be. At the very least, the Rochester-based U.S. attorney’s office should quickly review this case and—hopefully—prevent Parris from enjoying his undeserved freedom.
Setting a man free because he was “intentional” about killing a person rather than having a “depraved indifference” toward another’s life does not serve the cause of justice. This is one of those rare occasions where employing the dual-sovereignty doctrine is certainly warranted.
The U.S. Supreme Court wanted to preserve this option, and—for Rochester’s safety—federal prosecutors should strongly explore using it.