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Murder charge reflects rare twist in state law

"Prosecutors like it. Others don’t. Scholars find it hard to justify."

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Brittney Mikesell gives a sign to her mother, Melody Justus, for her to call her, while making an appearance in McLean County court Thursday. Mikesell faces murder charges in the death of her boyfriend, Cullen Hedrick, during an altercation at a Bloomington mobile home court in December.

BLOOMINGTON — The charge against Brittney Mikesell is based on a controversial provision of Illinois’ murder statute.

It allows for a person to be charged with murder if someone dies while they’re committing a forcible felony, such as a robbery. It’s called “felony murder.”

In Mikesell’s case, she is charged with murder because her boyfriend, Cullen Hedrick, died while she was allegedly committing mob action at a south Bloomington trailer park. Authorities say a third person, Rodney Daugherty, actually stabbed Hedrick in self-defense, yet Mikesell is charged with murder.

There is skepticism in the legal community, particularly among defense lawyers, about the felony murder law, said David Rumley, a Bloomington defense attorney. Some states have curtailed its use, and high-profile cases have been overturned in Indiana and Massachusetts. Critics of the law’s application in juvenile cases successfully won a commuted sentence in 2017 for a teenager convicted of felony murder in Ogle County.

Audio: The controversial legal case against Brittney Mikesell

“Prosecutors like it. Others don’t. Scholars find it hard to justify,” said Rumley, who is not involved in the Mikesell case.

The skepticism is two-fold. From a logical standpoint, Rumley said, the law runs counter to the legal system’s doctrine of holding people responsible for their own bad actions. It also has questionable deterrence effectiveness because a person committing a lesser crime might not expect to be charged with murder, he said.

“Where’s the deterrent effect of the law? It’s purely punishment at that point,” Rumley said.

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers defends his office’s use of the law.

Here’s how he explains it: If a guy robs a bank with a getaway driver, and a security guard shoots and kills the suspect inside, the driver can be charged with felony murder.

“Because a death has occurred in the process of a robbery,” Chambers said.

In Mikesell’s case, she and Hedrick went to the trailer park — armed with a machete and pepper spray — to confront someone, authorities said. Before that confrontation took place, they encountered Daugherty. Hedrick ended up stabbed in the chest and died in the ER. Prosecutors will have to prove Mikesell’s conduct during their confrontation with Daugherty led to Hedrick’s death.

There are still several unknowns that may come out should the case go to trial. Was Mikesell the aggressor in Hedrick’s final moments? Why did their confrontation with Daugherty turn violent so suddenly?

Public defender Jennifer Patton, assigned to represent Mikesell, said the charges have added a layer of complexity to the case.

“It’s not just your simple murder case,” said Patton.

It’s very likely that Mikesell’s prior mental health diagnosis will be raised, said the county’s top Public Defender, Carla Barnes.

Mikesell, who faces 20 to 60 years in prison if convicted of felony murder, “seems to be doing well” in jail, said Patton.

As rare as it’s used in Illinois, McLean County has two felony murder cases pending.

The other was filed in 2016 against Danny Smith of Peoria. He’s accused of being responsible for the death of Maunds Bryant, who suffered a serious head injury when he fell during a break-in by Smith. Bryant was kidnapped along with his stepfather and died the following day at a Peoria hospital.

Smith faces murder charges in Bryant’s death even though Bryant’s injuries from the fall are believed to be the case of his death.

 Chambers said there is a deterrent effect in the felony murder law.

“In general, it drives home the seriousness of what can happen if you engage in dangerous activities. You can have pretty tragic results,” said Chambers, who declined to speak on the specifics of Mikesell’s case.

Those that know Mikesell and Hedrick are closely watching the case.

“Brittney has to pay something for what she did,” said Susan Miller, Mikesell’s grandmother, who lives in Tennessee. “I feel bad for Brittney. I’m sure she’ll do something else if she gets away with this.”

Melody Justus of Downs, Mikesell’s mother, thinks the felony murder charge is unfair. Mikesell was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, records show.

 “She’s mentally ill. She tried to save his (Hedrick's) life and was his best chance at life. She drove him to the hospital,” Justus said. “If he’s out there with a machete, what do you think he’s doing? The (felony murder) law doesn’t account for all these outside circumstances.”

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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