In 1995 Gene Hein appeared on my CNBC show to talk about his 18-year-old son, who was serving a life sentence with no chance of parole—even though he hadn't killed or robbed anyone. What had Brandon Hein done?
On May 22 of that year, in Agoura Hills, Calif., Brandon and three friends went to buy marijuana from two boys operating out of a backyard fort; Brandon and his friends were drunk. An argument ensued, and one of the friends wound up stabbing one of the boys from the fort, who bled to death.
At trial, the prosecution didn't claim that Brandon had killed anyone. But it did convince a jury that he and his friends had intended to commit robbery, even though most of the boys knew each other, no one wore disguises, and nothing was stolen. According to the felony-murder rule, all participants in a felony can be held equally culpable, including those who did no harm, possessed no weapon, and didn't intend to hurt anyone. Brandon got the same punishment as the boy who committed the murder. (One explanation: the murdered boy's dad was a police officer, and after the Simpson acquittal and the hung jury in the Menendez case—both of which occurred in the same judicial venue—the prosecution desperately wanted a conviction.)
As the years have gone by, I've become friends with Brandon's father, mother, and stepmother. I've tried to get elected officials to take up Brandon's cause, but I've had little luck—no one wants to look soft on crime. A few months ago I met with Attorney General Eric Holder. He was sympathetic but promised nothing.
Brandon is now 32. Earlier this year, after he'd served 14 years, his sentence was commuted to 29 years to life with a chance of parole. In California, one must serve 85 percent of a sentence before becoming parole-eligible. That means Brandon must serve more than 24½ years before being considered—another decade. Among Western nations, only the U.S. retains the felony-murder rule, though Michigan, Kentucky, and Hawaii have dropped it. It's a disgrace—and if the Obama administration is talking about reforming drug-sentencing laws, it should consider abolishing the felony-murder rule on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.
Gene told me once that, back in 1995, when they got to court, Brandon's attorney told Gene, "The prosecution may ask for the death penalty." This is a boy who, at 18, got drunk and got into a fight, and he'll be 42 before he gets a chance to reclaim his life.