Murder Charges in News Copter Crashes?

One of the stories I missed blogging while on my recent mini-vacation was the crash of two news helicopters in Phoenix last week while they were racing to get the best angles in covering a police chase. The chasee faces murder charges:

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said Tuesday his office will continue reviewing whether to file murder charges against Christopher J. Jones, 23, who police were chasing when the two news helicopters crashed while taping the incident.

[…]

Thomas said his office is continuing to work with the Phoenix Police Department and that the department has insisted he seek murder charges against Jones, who was leading the police chase when two helicopters crashed, killing four news crewmen. “These people were doing an important job and that is providing news to the people of this community,” Thomas said.

Thomas has not said whether he will pursue homicide charges. He said much will depend on the results of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. “The facts we need to complete this investigation just haven’t been complete,” he said.

Regardless, legal experts cautioned that could be a tough legal road to go down. Arizona law allows a criminal to be charged with murder if someone is killed while committing a felony. The law assumes the criminal should have known there was a chance someone could have died while committing the crime. For example, if someone robs a store at gunpoint it’s reasonable to assume the gun could accidentally fire and kill an innocent bystander. Legal experts also said the robber should presume that the cashier of the store could fire their own gun and kill an innocent customer.

But defense attorneys contacted by the Tribune have said it’s too early to determine what caused the crash and added that Jones could not have reasonably assumed that a pair news helicopters would collide while taping footage of the police chase.

I generally support the Felony Murder Rule but this stretches it beyond reason. I agree with Andrew Samwick on this one: “The helicopter occupants were not innocent bystanders. They chose to be in the vicinity of the felony knowing that it was in progress. It’s tragic that they died in the crash, but it seems farfetched to hold the perp legally responsible for that.”

In addition to it being unreasonable to expect Jones to foresee news helicopters crashing into one another while he was attempting to flee — and there being serious questions as to whether his action s or negligent practices on their part was the proximate cause of the crash — it strikes me that the main incentive for charging a man who already faces 123 years in prison with murder here is to force him to cop a plea. In all respects, then, doing so would be an abuse of police power.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    What if it was two news vans?

    A news van and a civilian car?

    If you take the robbery examples, the person fleeing hitting another car would be like the accidental gun shot. A police car hitting another car would be like the store owner accidentally hitting an innocent bystander.

    If an innocent bystander driver hit another car trying to avoid the fleeing car, it would seem to be covered.

    The big difference seems to be that these guys were trying to get closer to the car. It would be like people outside of the store being robbed trying to come into the store and shooting each other by accident.

    Based on our legal system, I suspect the DA will be amenable to tossing the charges on. They can be dropped if they seriously hurt the prosecution, it spreads the defense team a little farther (got to love the adversarial court system) and who knows, it just my stick.

  2. frank says:

    the cops should be held reponsible. They chased the criminal in an irresponsible manner.

  3. Bithead says:

    To my mind, that attaempt at murder charges stretches the law all out of shape. It stretches the credibility of the law, the prosecutors, and the police to be so charging the perpetrator. The law, to my mind, was never intended to be used in that fashion. If, in fact, it does end up being used in that fashion, the law should be rewritten to prevent such abuses in future.

  4. randall says:

    It is the duty of the pilot-in-command of an aircraft to maintain visual separation with other aircraft while under visual flight rules. These were commercial pilots with a high degree of training. The direct fault lies with the pilots, while some fault can be directed towards the FAA whose regulations allow VFR aircraft to occupy the same airspace with pilot coordination. Additional fault might be directed towards the T.V. stations management who allow and encourage their pilots to get in close and get the picture. Murder? No way. Reckless endangerment? Yes

  5. jpe says:

    We had an identical case in my crim law case (it was upheld on appeal; I suspect it’s a popular case for textbooks because of how zany it is).

    At first, I thought it was insane, but isn’t it eminently foreseeable that choppers will follow the chase? As for the fault of the pilots, that doesn’t generally factor in in other felony murder cases. If I rob a bank, and there’s some Mr. Magoo there with a gun and cataracts, shoots and kills a security guard, I’ll still get stuck with a murder conviction, even though the more direct cause was the horrible aim of Mr. Magoo and his worse judgment.

  6. jpe says:

    That should have read, “in my crim law course,” of course.

  7. jpe says:

    Reckless endangerment? Yes

    That’s murder in the second degree in many jurisdictions.

  8. just me says:

    I think one difference between choppers and cars, is that a car-even a news car can’t easily get out of the way of the actual chase, but choppers can, and honestly, helicopter pilots chasing a story should be aware of the other helicopters around him.

    This just seems to stretch the law a bit far and seems to be a way to feel better by finding somebody to place all the blame on, and sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy and nobody is criminally responsible.

  9. jpe says:

    sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy and nobody is criminally responsible.

    That’s a good point; there’s a tendency in law to try to create a hermetic legal universe, in which every fact pattern has to be captured by the rules and nothing can just be an accident.

    Correction: I said that the chopper case was upheld on appeal. That was wrong; the appeals court said that the foreseeability of a chopper chase was a question for the jury. (People v Acosta, CA crt of appeals (1991)).

  10. Tano says:

    So if I rush over to my TV to see the breaking news of this pursuit, and I trip over my cat and hit my head on the sofa and die, should the perp be charged with murdering me too?

  11. Paul Sorentino says:

    OK, let me get this straight… they have three different choppers each trying to get the ‘money shot’, an opportunity that was available to these news stations only because a police chase ensued following the criminal actions this man had committed. If the responsibility should be placed on anyone, I believe it should be blamed on the third chopper that was on the tails of the two helicopters has collided. Unless the criminal had some sort of anti-aircraft device or a rocket launcher, how is it possible for the robber to be held responsible? The law is meant to protect the innocent bystanders at the scene of a specific crime who are not seen as just collateral damage. In the event of a cashier wielding a weapon and unintentionally murdering a bystander, it makes sense that the initiator of the chain of events to be held responsible for any blood at the crime scene. For private media outlets that make their living off of pursuing chases, and the cops that take unreasonable risks by failing to follow protocol, the frenzy which follows cannot reasonably be held against the robber. If the law is interpreted liberally enough, are any coincidental deaths in the radius of “X miles” also going to be brought against the defendant? Even if they just include the chopper accident, any judge in their right mind wouldn’t allow the prosecutor to bring forward those charges. Even if the public pretender wasn’t smart enough to even file a motion of malicious prosecution, such outrageous charges (In my opinion) would really displace the focus of the jurors from the real crime committed to other frivolous charges that have no bearing on actual case. It’s great that there is such a law on hand to protect the bystanders, but the criminal fleeing the scene of a crime shouldn’t be the scapegoat inn accidental deaths of aggressive media operations and reckless police chases.

  12. Paul Sorentino says:

    Nice Tano! (Not to disrespect those who died in this tragic accident, but hey, maybe we can get some of our ailing troops given compensation on the premise that the local events triggered extreme emotional distress, since they probably haven’t received any compensation for any of their claims because PTSD doesn’t exist, so says our government).

  13. bill says:

    They should bring charges against the police and the PRODUCERS at the stations. This will stop this crap. I called our station and they are scared to death and Im hearing will get rid of their chopper. Which is always good. We have no need of watching any car wreck or chase for any reason. Leaves time for more pressing news.

  14. floyd says:

    This is simply a case of two paparazzi colliding in mid air.If they had crashed trying to film Brittany Spears topless on the beach; should she be charged with murder?……..FILM AT ELEVEN!!!

    Who should be charged when two more incompetent pilots crash trying to film the crash?