Christina Down-Robinson’s younger brother died in a bungled robbery outside a McDonald’s in Walpole nearly three decades ago. Her feelings about Samuel Michael Caze, one of two men convicted in the killing, are not lessened by the fact that he was not the shooter. He orchestrated the holdup, she said.
“There’s a reason he was given the sentence he was given,” said Down-Robinson.
But Caze’s mother sees the whole situation differently. She said her son — and only child — was convicted under a type of murder charge that has since been ruled unjust, and barred from use in future cases. She said he may have made poor choices back in his 20s, but has become a changed man during his decades behind bars and deserves a chance at parole.
“He should not be in jail,’' said Myrtha Jean Caze.
These two women reflect opposite sides of a national debate over felony murder, a criminal charge that many feel leads to disproportional punishment. In some states, if someone dies during the commission of certain serious felonies, everyone involved in the venture can be charged with first-degree murder.
That aspect of felony murder was done away with in Massachusetts in 2017 in a ruling by the state’s high court which made murderous intent a prerequisite for any first-degree murder conviction.
But the court did not make its landmark decision retroactive, so Caze, convicted in 1995 of armed robbery and first-degree felony murder of Scott Down, and others in the same situation have little hope unless there are other reforms. Among them would be a new expanded decision by the SJC, a new law by the legislature, or individual commutations by the governor.
Caze is among nearly two dozen people identified by a Boston Globe Spotlight Team investigation who were convicted of first-degree felony murder in Massachusetts, but did not play a direct role in the killing.
Myrtha Jean, now 75 and living in Mansfield, has never spoken publicly about the imprisonment of her son, Michael, whom she said was her pride and joy. A devoted churchgoer, she was strict as a single mother. Her brother-in-law, Jean-Claude Sanon, a Haitian community leader, helped to raise Michael.
But Michael changed in his last year of high school, hanging out and back talking, his mother said. She warned him about the company he was keeping. “He didn’t listen,’’ she said.
Caze, now turning 50, told the Globe that he’s different now. He said he counsels young men who visit the facility and shares his story about what led to his incarceration.
On May 31, 1993, records show, Caze and his friend Demitrias Salley showed up near the McDonald’s in Walpole just after closing time to carry out an armed robbery. Caze had worked at the restaurant briefly allegedly to check the place out, and the heist, the two thought, would be easy. No one would get hurt.
That evening, Salley carried the gun. But Caze said he got cold feet and bolted as he saw Salley approach the restaurant. When Down, a McDonald’s worker, came outside to empty the trash, Salley and Down tussled. And Down was fatally shot.
Both Salley and Caze were arrested in January 1994 in Alabama, where they attended college.
Salley confessed to being the shooter. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors and is expected to face the parole board later this year.
Caze decided to take his chances on a trial, figuring no jurors would convict him of first-degree murder when he didn’t kill Down. He says it doesn’t make sense that the shooter is eligible for parole while he is not. “Where is the justice in that?” said Caze.
But a jury found him guilty of first-degree felony murder.
“They condemned him,’’ his mother said.
She said her son calls twice weekly and tells her about the barber program he’s completed and the college courses he’s taking. He officiates prison basketball games.
Caze said he is considering making another court appeal of his mandatory life sentence.
For Christina Down-Robinson, the pain of losing her brother still haunts. Since Scott was killed, she has taken a leadership role in her family, caring for her younger brother and distraught parents, including her father until he died in 2016.
She’s spoken out against parole for Salley, while striving to keep those responsible for Scott’s death behind bars.
She said she and her brother were close in age and did everything together — sharing a car, hanging out, attending Dean College in Franklin, where Scott majored in nutrition and fitness.
Seated in her Franklin home, she gently held a picture of her brother, his hair neatly combed. His teenage face is frozen in time.
“It’s the only time I get to hold him,’’ she said quietly.