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Does accomplice share equal guilt?

A Salt Lake defense attorney has challenged a decades-old legal assumption that an accomplice to a crime shares equal guilt with the perpetrator.

It's an argument prosecutors worry will open a torrent of appeals from prison inmates.The case stems from two Salt Lake men, Ryan Tolton, 21, and Davey Joe Williams, 19, charged with robbing and murdering a drug dealer four months ago.

Tolton faces the death penalty because prosecutors believe he pulled a gun on Arthur Sanchez during a robbery on May 24, then shot him in the head, killing him.

Williams is also charged with murder because he was with Tolton and knew Tolton planned to rob Sanchez, according to court documents. But he faces a lesser charge of murder, a first-degree felony, punishable by up to life in prison.

Although he did not do the shooting, Williams was charged with murder under the state's philosophy that an accomplice to a crime, such as the person who drives the getaway car during a bank robbery, is as guilty as the actual perpetrator - especially if the crime results in a killing.

But defense attorney John O'Connell challenged that assumption last week in 3rd District Court.

The idea of an accomplice being equally guilty, called vicarious liability, is rooted in common law, which the state tossed out in 1973 when it rewrote its criminal code, especially its statutes governing murder, O'Connell argued to Judge L.A. Dever.

A careful reading of the statute shows it holds the actor, the person who actually committed murder, responsible for the crime, along with those who may have helped plan, encourage or actually carry it out, O'Connell said.

O'Connell concedes Williams knew a robbery was planned and participated in it but said there is no evidence he knew Tolton was planning to kill Sanchez, so he cannot be charged with the murder.

"You are only responsible for the conduct you encourage," O'Connell told Dever.

Prosecutor Cy Castle agreed the principle of vicarious liability is rooted in common law but argued it was scrapped during the 1973 revision of the state statutes.

The recodification "was intended only to take some of the harshness out of the felony-murder rule, not to gut it," Castle argued, adding the Utah Supreme Court has had ample opportunities over the past decades to address that question but hasn't.

The state doesn't need to prove Williams intended to kill Sanchez during the robbery, Castle said, it only needs to show that Williams participated in the crime that led to his death.

"The vehicle that killed Mr. Sanchez was the robbery," Castle said. "He (Williams) participated in the robbery and did commit the underlying felony and is responsible for the murder that stemmed from it. The legal standard is firmly established on it."

Castle quoted one court ruling that found when an accomplice decides to participate in a crime, the accomplice is "responsible for the natural and probable consequences . . . including the homicide which resulted therein even though he did not personally participate in the killing."

Both Castle and O'Connell realize that Dever's ruling could have far-reaching consequences.

"I've been waiting for this case for 20 years," O'Connell said after the hearing.

Castle said he's contacted the Utah Attorney General's Office and told Dever if he follows O'Connell's interpretation of the statute, "you will be adopting a minority position."

He also suggested the issue should go to the state's appeals court because of its long-range implications.

Standing outside the district court building after the hearing and gazing south in the direction of the Utah State Prison, Castle said he could "hear the papers rustling now," anticipating a flood of appeals from inmates convicted as accomplices.