TALLAHASSEE -- Ryan Holle did not kill anyone with his own hands. But he lent his car to friends who later killed a young woman in her home, and that was enough to convict Holle of first degree murder.
Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members on Wednesday will consider whether to release him from his life sentence without parole.
More than 2,000 supporters have signed an online petition that calls his conviction a “travesty’’ and seeks his release from prison. His case has drawn national media attention, from the New York Times, The Nation, and TV talk show hosts including Star Jones and Judge Jeanine Pirro.
At the heart of the case is the so-called felony murder doctrine. It holds that an accomplice like Holle is just as responsible as the actual killers when a murder takes place during the commission of a felony.
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After a long, boozy night of partying in Pensacola in 2003, Holle handed the keys to his Chevy subcompact to four friends. They burglarized a house looking for cash and marijuana in a safe. They found $425, and used a butt of a shotgun to kill 18-year-old Jessica Snyder.
Holle was at home at the time, a mile and a half away, and had no prior criminal record. In later statements to police, Holle said he knew his friends were planning a burglary, but claimed he thought it was a joke: “I thought they were just playing around,” he said, according to reports in the Pensacola News Journal.
State prosecutors say Holle gave the killers bandanas that were used during the crime.
Holle was 21 when a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. He had rejected a plea deal for a 10-year sentence in exchange for testifying against the others.
Now 32, he’s at Graceville Correctional Facility, a private prison a few miles from the Florida-Alabama border. He’s asking Scott and the Cabinet members, sitting as the Board of Clemency, to commute his sentence and set him free.
“This is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen for the application of the felony murder rule,” said Barry Beroset, a Pensacola lawyer who has handled some prior legal matters for Holle. “He didn’t go anywhere. They took his car. He didn’t participate.”
On the website ryanholle.com, supporters argue that “Ryan’s conviction is a travesty of justice. The felony murder rule is an outdated, archaic doctrine that allows prosecutors to abuse their power and charge people in excess of their true culpability.”
The victim’s father, Terry Snyder, and her younger sister, Marcie, will be at the hearing to plead that Holle be kept behind bars for the rest of his life.
“We’re tired of this guy not taking responsibility for what he did,” said Terry Snyder, a custodial worker at the Navy base in Pensacola.
“After all, no car, no crime. He deserves to be where he’s at ... He gave them the keys and told them it was okay. That makes him just as culpable as them.”
State prosecutors also oppose Holle’s release.
“We are opposed to any sort of commutation in this case,” said Greg Marcille, Pensacola’s chief assistant state attorney. “The defendant provided his automobile to be used during the crime. But for that, the crime would not have been committed.”
The combined opposition of prosecutors and the victim’s family makes Holle’s bid for release more difficult, a point Scott raised Tuesday.
“My understanding is, some of the victim’s family members are going to be there, so we’ll look at it,” Scott said. Asked if he had made a decision on the case, he said: “No, I haven’t.”
Criminal justice experts say the felony murder doctrine is relevant when a burglary or robbery is being planned.
“If you know they’re planning to rob somebody, I think it’s entirely foreseeable that somebody is going to end up dead,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California.
Two Cabinet members, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi, also said Tuesday they had not formed an opinion. Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, also a Cabinet member, are considered possible candidates for governor in 2018.
Bondi, a former Tampa prosecutor, said: “You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.”
The clemency board meets only four times a year. The holiday season may encourage a spirit of compassion, but it’s unusual for the governor and Cabinet to set an inmate free.
Eight months ago, in a DUI manslaughter case involving a popular high school football coach in Manatee County, many people testified in favor of Josh Hunter’s release. Even a state legislator and the victim’s family spoke up for him. But Scott opted to take no action by taking the case “under advisement,” and no decision has been made.
Herald/Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory and Tampa Bay Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed.