How can a person be convicted of first-degree murder when they are a mile and a half away from the crime scene when the killing occurred?
When I met Ryan Holle at Florida's Walton Correctional Institution, he was optimistic and spirited, even for a man whose destiny was life in prison. Convicted for the murder of his friend, 18-year-old Jessica Snyder, viciously beaten to death with the butt-end of a rifle. Holle's sentence in connection with that murder? One stop short of lethal injection.
"When I was convicted I was given natural life without the possibility of parole," said Ryan Holle.
And when you hear how that daunting life sentence came to be, you may feel as outraged as many of the nation's respected legal minds. Then again, maybe you won't.
The story begins, like so many we follow, with a portrait of innocent youth.
"He's a good kid, was always studious, got straight A's," said John Garnett, Ryan's stepfather.
Growing up, Ryan's mom Sylvia, then a single parent, joined the U.S. Navy just to keep her children in a disciplined environment.
"My kids were raised on Navy bases around the world," said Sylvia Garnett, Ryan's mother.
"We never had any trouble with law enforcement," said Heather Holle, Ryan's sister.
When Sylvia married longtime love John Garnett, Ryan happily gave his mother away.
Ryan's friend Jessica Snyder was a guest at the wedding. Four days later her skull was bludgeoned to pieces.
"It was one of the worst I've ever seen," said former Pensacola, Florida prosecutor David Rimmer.
But why is Ryan Holle paying the ultimate price for Jessica's murder?
"He didn't plan it," said Rimmer.
"I absolutely had no idea. How could I get in trouble for something that I was never at the scene of the crime?" said Holle.
To understand this troubling case, we rewind to the night before Jessica Snyder's violent death in 2003.
Ryan threw a party at the Pensacola, Florida home he shared with his sister Heather and Ryan's roommate Billy Allen. Billy was dating Jessica Snyder, who was one of the party guests that night.
"She was very, very sweet," said Heather Holle. "Everybody who I knew from the people coming in and out of the house seemed to know her and like her and didn't think anything bad of her."
As for Ryan's roommate Billy Allen -- well, Heather wasn't exactly feeling the love.
"He just always seemed sketchy to me," said Heather.
There were even rumors that Billy not only dated Jessica, but had a fling going with her mother Christine as well.
Heather says Jessica's mother also supplied Billy with drugs.
"The only thing I heard Billy ever say about Jessica's mother was that he owed her money for some drugs," said Heather.
Billy had revealed to a few friends that Jessica's mom kept a safe in her home.
"They believed that there was $20,000 in cash in the safe," said David Rimmer.
Which brings us back to the night of Ryan's party, where a sinister plan was hatched. It's a raucous affair and the booze is flowing hard.
"I would say I probably had between six to 10 drinks, mixture of rum and Coke," said Ryan Holle.
Ryan goes to bed before the party ends, but then someone he barely knows enters his bedroom around 7 o'clock the following morning.
"I was woken up by Donnie Williams, and he had asked me if he could borrow the keys to my car," Ryan Holle tells Crime Watch Daily.
Did Ryan know Donnie Williams?
"No, ma'am. I had met him briefly before but I didn't know him," Ryan tells Crime Watch Daily.
Ryan refused to give Donnie Williams his car keys, but when Ryan's roommate Billy came in with the same request, Ryan had a change of heart.
"And I tell him yes, basically," said Ryan. "Because I had trust in him."
While Ryan and Billy Allen are discussing the keys, Donnie and two other men Ryan hardly knows enter the room. Ryan is groggy and still drunk, but he overhears their conversation.
"It was a mixture of two different things. They had spoken about going over to William Allen's on-and-off girlfriend's house, Jessica Snyder, to steal the safe. And then they also talked about going to get something to eat," said Ryan.
Then, according to a police interview with Ryan, the men asked him if they could borrow some bandanas.
"In his statement he acknowledged that they were talking about going over there and doing, in his words, a 'John Wayne,' and they asked for some bandanas," said former prosecutor David Rimmer.
Ryan tells the men where they can find the bandanas. Then he overhears more conversation. The would-be bandits discuss who might be at the Snyder home when they pull off the heist. They knew Jessica's parents would be gone. But what about Jessica, Billy's own girlfriend?
"They thought she might be there, the girl. There had been some discussion in the presence of Ryan Holle, what they would do if Jessica was there," said David Rimmer. "One of them was that they might have to knock her out, they might have to put her to sleep. This is the language that they used."
Ryan tells Crime Watch Daily the conversation barely registered with him, and what little did, he just didn't believe.
"There was no reality in my mind that this was something that could actually happen," said Ryan. "Absolutely not."
How can a person be convicted of first-degree murder when they are nowhere near the crime scene? It's a question Ryan Holle and his family have asked over and over again.
It's something people do all the time: lend their cars to a friend. But for 25-year-old Ryan Holle, that decision would change his life forever.
Ryan Holle handed over his car keys to his roommate, a decision he didn't think too much about. But that seemingly innocent moment would change his life forever.
It's the early morning hours in the small waterfront town of Pensacola, Florida in 2003. After a night of heavy partying, Ryan Holle had agreed to let roommate Billy Allen borrow his car.
Ryan never said no when Billy asked to borrow his car -- they were good buddies, according to Ryan.
Ryan admits he had overheard Billy and others talk about burglarizing the home of Jessica Snyder, Billy's girlfriend. But in our prison interview with Ryan, he insists he never thought the plan was real.
"I didn't take it serious at all," said Ryan. "When they had said they were going to do that, I was like, 'I don't really...' I've never been involved with anything like that in my whole life."
Ryan also overheard the conspirators plan to "knock out" Jessica if she happened to be home during the heist, something else Ryan's family says he didn't believe.
"She was dating the guy that was borrowing the car. Why would he think they would do anything to her? So he didn't think anything of it," said Ryan's stepfather John Garnett.
But the plan was very real. While Ryan laid in bed, trying to shake off a hangover and get some sleep, Billy was behind the wheel of Ryan's car on his way to Jessica's house, a mile and a half away, to steal her mother's safe containing money and jewelry.
Three accomplices were in on the heist: Donnie Williams, Charles Miller and Jermond Thomas, veritable strangers to Ryan Holle.
When the crew first arrives at Jessica Snyder's home, the plan is put on pause. There's a snag.
"When they got there her younger sister was there, so they were waiting for the sister to leave to go to school," said former prosecutor David Rimmer.
While they're waiting, Billy's cellphone rings. It's Ryan.
"When I called I was like 'Where's my car, what are you guys doing?'" said Ryan. "They were at Jessica Snyder's house and that they were waiting for the sister to leave."
At that point did Ryan realize this plan was a reality?
"No ma'am. Still didn't," said Ryan. "I remember that he said he had to go, and he ended up hanging up the phone."
Ryan falls back asleep. Meanwhile, at Jessica's house, her little sister has finally left for school. The heist is back in motion. Billy waits in the car while the other three bust their way into Jessica's home and head for the safe in a back bedroom. Jessica is there, and she's terrified.
"Apparently she was screaming because they had broken into the house," said Rimmer.
While the others are scrambling to get the safe and looking for other items to steal, Charles Miller remembers that plan to "knock out" Jessica if she got in the way. That plan, evil as it was, evolved into something seemingly psychotic.
"Charles Miller removed a shotgun that was on the wall in the house," said Rimmer. "To shut her up he started hitting her and then he just kind of snapped and just kept pounding and pounding and pounding on her face and her head with the shotgun."
"The butt even broke off of the rifle, he was hitting her so hard," said John Garnett.
When the others saw Jessica's crushed skull and lifeless body, Charles Miller was standing next to her, bloody shotgun in hand, an eerie smile on his face. He tossed the gun in the kitchen sink. But now the others are panicked and in a rush to get the safe into Ryan's car. Once it's lifted into the back seat, the burglars race back to Ryan's house, plowing through a fence to get to the back yard.
"I hear a loud 'bang,' basically, and when I get up to look to see what it is, my car is basically sitting in my back yard," said Ryan. "I see them jumping out of the vehicle and they basically took a safe out of the back seat and put it on the ground."
"'Oh my God,' I said, 'What's going on? What are you doing?'" said Ryan Holle.
The crew uses every tool they can find to try to bust open the safe.
"Charles Miller, he has blood on his clothes, and I was like 'I don't want no part of this, you guys need to leave,' and he said 'Shut up,'" said Ryan.
That's when Ryan learns of the vicious beating endured by his friend Jessica Snyder.
"The one person who actually did say something to me that made me realize that something had happened to Jessica was when Donnie said 'One minute it's like I could see her head there, and then the next minute I couldn't,' and he had started crying."
Before Ryan had even a minute to absorb the horrific murder, police showed up at his house. All the banging trying to get the safe cracked piqued the interest of a suspicious neighbor who had called the cops. Now the long arm of the law had its reach on everyone.
"When they had first came into the residence they basically told everybody to freeze, and what they did is they put everybody in handcuffs and they had us sitting in the dining room," said Ryan.
Ryan is confident he's not a guilty party in this misguided-turned-murderous heist. He cooperates with the police.
"I was never being deceptive or anything like that," said Ryan. "I was really just trying to do the right thing by telling them what had happened that night."
But Ryan's cooperation would come back to haunt him.
The ghastly bludgeoning of an innocent teenage girl was a murder case Florida cops had little problem piecing together, and not without Ryan Holle's help.
"The record shows that Holle fully cooperated with police and told them what he knew and who else was involved in Jessica's murder," said Florida Governor Rick Scott during Holle's clemency hearing.
Even though police know Ryan wasn't involved in the heist or the murder, and wasn't even at the crime scene, and simply lent his car keys to a roommate, stunningly he was charged with the murder of Jessica Snyder, along with the four other defendants.
"They basically say 'We think you have something more to do with the crime that happened, so we're going to arrest you on an open count of murder," said Ryan.
It's a controversial and some say antiquated law called the Felony Murder Rule. In some states, when people participate in certain serious crimes like robbery or burglary or rape, and a person is murdered during the commission of that crime, everyone is held responsible for the death. So everyone is treated like the "trigger-man," even if they didn't pull the trigger.
But how is Ryan Holle responsible? Ryan is about to learn the law the hard way. His police interrogation is recorded:
Cop: "You knew the burglary was going to happen."
Ryan: "I wasn't involved at all and I didn't have any part of what they did to her."
Ryan: "And I didn't have any part when they came back to the house and they did what they did to the safe."
Cop: "Exactly, but see the problem is this: If it wasn't for the burglary being committed..."
Ryan: "Nothing would have happened."
"He knew when they left his house with his car, they were going to use it to commit the burglary -- and also that if Jessica was there, she might be harmed," said prosecutor David Rimmer.
But he told investigators many times that he didn't think they were serious.
"Yeah, he said that, and that's up to the jury to decide," said Rimmer.
The Felony Murder Rule requires that a person must have something called "conscious intent," meaning that Ryan had to fully expect the burglary to take place.
You can't just be aware of something -- you have to intend that the crime be committed.
"Someone has to commit a crime, and someone has to be killed during the course of the crime, and you have to have intended to assist them in the underlying offense," said appellate attorney Barry Beroset.
But as far as Ryan Holle is concerned, there was no intent -- conscious or otherwise.
"Had I truly known I would have never, ever, ever allowed that to happen," said Ryan.
But prosecutors were going by the book on this one. Ryan Holle was facing murder.
"I was absolutely stunned," said Ryan.
"In this particular case, he did nothing. He wasn't involved in planning the case, he wasn't involved in receiving any of the goods afterwards, he told them he didn't want anything to do with it," said Barry Beroset.
Prosecutor David Rimmer offered a plea deal of just 10 years in state prison for Ryan's role in the case. Ryan was the only defendant offered a deal.
"I was willing to do that. I was willing to give him a break," said Rimmer.
But the Holle family rejected the offer. Ryan's stepfather blames himself.
"I told him not to take it. If he would have taken it, he'd be home right now," said John Garnett.
But Garnett says he had good reason for rejecting the plea deal at the time. He blames Ryan's attorney Sharon Wilson for that ill-fated decision. According to Garnett, Wilson practically guaranteed a slam-dunk victory if Ryan went to trial.
"She made me feel very comfortable that he would be coming home," said Garnett.
"She said that there was no way I would be convicted at trial," said Ryan. "Me and my family were so certain that my mother and my stepfather actually brought a change of clothes and had it in the truck waiting for me."
But Sharon Wilson tells Crime Watch Daily that it was Ryan's own decision to reject the plea deal, and that she knew defending Ryan was going to be a challenge under the Felony Murder Rule.
"I knew that it was going to be difficult. We had really tough facts, we had a sympathetic victim and then we had laws that unfortunately we could not change before the trial. We were stuck with that," Wilson said.
But worse yet, Ryan's family claims, Wilson never explained the concept of Felony Murder.
According to John Garnett, Sharon Wilson never told them that if Ryan does not get acquitted he will go to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
"Never," said Garnett.
"I can't speak to what they understood," said Wilson. "It is very hard to wrap your mind around that, that someone can be convicted under those circumstances. I don't think the jurors understood it."
And when Ryan went to trial?
"She never objected to anything. She never called a witness -- except for Ryan," said Garnett.
Ryan's entire trial took just one day.
"This was a 'ram-bam-thank-you-ma'am get her done in one day," said Garnett.
"The families always say that," said Wilson. "Basically when somebody gets convicted it becomes the attorney's fault, in spite of the bad facts."
It seemed over before it started -- not just the trial, but Ryan Holle's young life. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
"It hurt. I just couldn't believe it that now my life's gone forever and I'm going to go to prison," said Ryan.
Looking back, does the prosecutor have any regrets for charging Ryan Holle with first-degree murder?
"No, I really don't. I know it seems cold, but it was his decision to reject the plea offer," said David Rimmer.
The jury had an option of finding Ryan guilty of the lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter. But based on their verdict, jurors felt Ryan needed the harshest punishment.
"So if there's no car, there was no crime. No crime, no murder," said former prosecutor David Rimmer.
Despite the devastating sentence, Ryan has spent countless hours teaching himself law and essentially writing his own appeals, all of which have been denied.
But then a flicker of hope for Ryan Holle.
In a document obtained exclusively by Crime Watch Daily, Florida's Office of Executive Clemency "issued a favorable recommendation on your application for a commutation of sentence."
Ryan Holle is granted a hearing before the Clemency Board.
"He acknowledges his responsibility and has expressed remorse for the tragic consequences of his actions," said Florida Governor Rick Scott during the hearing.
Ryan finds a sympathizer in Gov. Scott.
"Clemency is an opportunity to temper justice with mercy," said Scott.
But Ryan's opponents were not so merciful.
"He had them go do the dirty work. He knew they were going to beat a teenager with a shotgun," said Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi during the session.
"He has not acted at all like an adult, and more like a child that got his arm caught in the cookie jar and denies he took a cookie. He is our comparison to Charles Manson," said Terry Snyder, Jessica's father.
Ryan's mother makes her impassioned plea for compassion.
"I would give my life today if I could bring Jessica back," said Sylvia Garnett. "Ryan would give his life. We are so sorry about what happened to Jessica and her family."
In the end, Ryan did not get freedom -- but he did get a compromise.
"I move to commute Ryan Holle's life sentence to 25 years' imprisonment, followed by 10 years' probation," said Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
At last, Ryan Holle will some day taste freedom.
"It's a blessing in the sense that I know I'm not going to have to spend the rest of my life in prison, but it still hurts that I'm going to have to do another seven years, and I will have spent 21 years and three months of my life incarcerated."
Unless he's granted a new hearing, Ryan Holle's family won't be welcoming him home until 2024.
For now Ryan knows exactly what he must do just to survive.
"This deputy, when he was walking me down to the holding cell underneath the courthouse, says 'Mr. Holle, if I could tell you one thing about what you're about to go through,' he's like, 'Just don't let prison turn you into an animal.'"
Ryan Holle's family is trying to get a second hearing before Florida's Clemency Board. People can write letters of support for his early release and send to Ryanholle82@gmail.com
DASH'S DOCKET: LIFE IN PRISON FOR LENDING CAR KEYS TO A FRIEND - CWD LEGAL ANALYSIS