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A chaotic chain of events that began early Tuesday, when Illinois police say six teenagers from Chicago drove to a northern suburb and attempted to steal a car, has ended in murder charges against five of them.
The Audi's owner, a 75-year-old man, told police he had watched a group of males trying to break into his vehicle outside of his Lake County home before 1:15 a.m. He grabbed his gun and as he stood outside on his porch, he said, they approached him.
The car owner saw one of the males holding an object and "feared for his life," firing his gun and striking one of the males, who turned out to be 14, in the head, according to police.
The group fled in another vehicle, a Lexus SUV that police say had been stolen two days earlier, and flagged down officers in a nearby town to get the 14-year-old first aid.
The boy was pronounced dead at the scene, the Lake County Sheriff's Office said.
The other teens tried to escape in the Lexus, and led police on a high-speed chase over 15 minutes from Lake County to Chicago, but ran out of gas and were arrested, authorities said.
After reviewing the case, the Lake County State's Attorney's Office announced charges this week against the five teens — of first-degree murder. Although three of the suspects are 17 and a fourth is 16, they are being charged as adults. A fifth suspect was identified as Diamond Davis, 18.
While none of them pulled the trigger in the death of the 14-year-old, later identified as Jaquan Swopes, prosecutors decided to use a state felony murder law to pin it on them.
The man who shot Swopes is a licensed gun owner, police added. A knife was also found at the scene, authorities said, and is believed to have belonged to one of the suspects.
"The teens were charged due to them being in commission of a forcible felony, when the 14-year-old victim was shot and subsequently died as a result of being shot during the commission of a burglary," the sheriff's office said in a statement.
Illinois' felony murder law allows prosecutors to charge a perpetrator with murder if someone dies while a forcible felony is committed. In Illinois, forcible felonies include robberies or burglaries.
In some cases, the person killed might be an innocent bystander, and prosecutors' ability to include a murder charge is meant to send a strong message of deterrence, said Andrew Leipold, a criminal law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
"The idea is: Don't do felonies, and if you do, you're taking on the risk that you can be charged even if you didn't intend for something bad to happen," Leipold said. "States have taken different views. The theory is it's a greater deterrence if you say, 'No excuses, no exceptions. You started down this road and if anything happens, it's on you.'"
Leipold added that suspects who are tied to forcible felony cases don't have to have been holding a weapon or even at the scene when the death occurred.
"Even if I'm the getaway driver, I'm an accomplice to your robbery and it's a forcible felony," Leipold said.
But critics have found such laws can be especially severe on juveniles. In Illinois, a first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 20 years to life behind bars.
Other states, including Indiana and Missouri, have their own versions. Leipold said there have been moves to abolish or sharply modify such laws, but that can be difficult since "it's a pretty unsympathetic group you're arguing on."
Last fall, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that scaled back how prosecutors can use the felony murder rule, only allowing it if a suspect was directly involved in the death or "a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life."
In the latest case in Illinois, the suspects were being held on $1 million bail each. All are expected back in court next month.
During a news conference Tuesday, Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg gave his condolences to the Swopes family and to a young man "who lost his life today, despite the circumstances."