Explaining Felony Murder

by Richard Jones  - June 25, 2023

Understanding Felony Murder

As one of the most complex aspects of criminal law, explaining felony murder can be quite challenging. But what is felony murder, and how does the rule apply in various situations? The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine that holds a person responsible for a death that occurs during the commission of certain criminal acts or felonies. The idea behind the felony murder doctrine is to deter criminals from committing inherently dangerous felonies by imposing severe consequences, like a murder charge, on the participants. In the U.S., the majority of states follow the felony murder law, adding yet another level of intricacy to the subject.

Felony Murder Rule Origins

The felony murder rule arose from the English common law system, dating back as early as the twelfth century. However, the application of the rule continued to evolve over time, and by the eighteenth century, it had become distinctly recognizable as the doctrine we have today. Eventually, the rule made its way into American common law, which led to individual states adopting their versions of the felony murder rule.

Degrees of Felony Murder

Felony murder is categorized into different degrees, depending on the circumstances of the case. First degree murder involves premeditation and deliberation, malice, and special circumstances that elevate the crime’s seriousness. In contrast, second degree felony murder lacks these specific factors. First degree felony murder typically comes with a harsher sentence than second degree, often involving life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Every state defines the degrees of felony murder differently. However, the primary distinction between first-degree murder and first-degree felony murder is that the latter does not require the presence of malice aforethought; participating in the felony is often enough to warrant a conviction.

The Underlying Felony

The concept of felony murder is centered around the idea of an underlying felony, meaning an inherently dangerous crime such as robbery or arson. The underlying felony is referred to as the predicate felony. When death occurs during the commission of a felony, the participants could be charged with felony murder.

However, the commission of a felony alone is not enough to warrant a felony murder charge. The relationship between the felony and death must be established, usually by proving that the actors had the intent to commit the felony, which led to the death.

Charging and Convicting with Felony Murder

When a death occurs during the commission of a crime, the participants can face felony murder charges. However, the process of levying a felony murder charge can differ depending on the circumstances. Generally, murder charges are added to already existing felonious behavior, which can leave the defendant facing multiple penalties if convicted.

Convicted individuals can get severe sentences, including life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty, depending on the state and the nature of the underlying felony. Felony murder convictions can be controversial due to the severity of the sentences compared to other types of murders.

Controversies and Criticisms

The application of the felony murder rule has been widely criticized, largely due to the possibility of imposing the death penalty or life imprisonment for individuals who may not have directly caused the death. In some cases, the Supreme Court held that certain applications of the felony murder rule violated the fundamental principles of due process and justice, putting the controversy around the rule under a public magnifying glass.

Many legal scholars and critics argue that a reform of the felony murder rule is necessary in order to better serve the principles of fundamental justice and fairness. This debate remains ongoing, as the felony murder controversy captures the attention of many in the world of criminal law.

Key Elements of Felony Murder

When it comes to understanding some of the most severe criminal charges, few are as complex as felony murder. Felony murder has to do with the taking of a human life, and the law recognizes that people exhibiting reckless indifference to such consequences should face severe penalties. This article will discuss the key elements of felony murder, as well as the various factors that can come into play in determining guilt. From extreme indifference to the victim’s death, we’ll examine all aspects of this criminal charge and see how they lead to a conviction.

Intent to Kill and Extreme Indifference

One critical aspect of felony murder charges is the requirement to prove intent to kill. The prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant had a specific intent to end the life of the victim. In some cases, this intent may manifest as “extreme indifference” towards the value of human life, which is seen as just as culpable as an explicit intent to kill. Extreme indifference often involves actions that demonstrate reckless disregard for the welfare and safety of others, ultimately leading to someone’s death.

When extreme indifference can be proven, the defendant can be charged with felony murder, even if they did not specifically harbor the intention to kill the victim outright. This notion is vital in felony murder cases because establishing intent to kill can be challenging, depending on the circumstances. Proving extreme indifference can help the prosecution overcome this barrier and secure a conviction.

The Victim’s Death

A key aspect of felony murder is that the victim’s death must be a direct result of the defendant’s actions. The death must occur either during the commission of the dangerous felony or the immediate flight from the scene. For example, if a death occurs weeks after the commission of the underlying felony, it may not be considered felony murder. On the other hand, if the killing occurs during the defendant’s attempted commission of an inherently dangerous crime, felony murder can be charged.

The victim’s death pattern in these cases plays a crucial role in determining the felony murder charges. Understanding the timeline between the commission of the crime and the victim’s death is essential in understanding the severity of the charges and the defendant’s potential culpability.

Dangerous Felonies and Co-Felons

Felony murder is typically charged when the defendant commits an inherently dangerous felony, such as burglary, arson, or kidnapping. These offences are known as “dangerous felonies” because they involve a high risk of death or severe bodily harm. If a co-felon commits a dangerous felony and their actions lead to someone’s death, they can also be charged with felony murder, along with the primary defendant.

Immediate flight after the commission of a dangerous felony can also lead to felony murder charges. For example, if a co-felon shoots and kills a store owner during a robbery and then flees the scene, they would still be charged with felony murder due to the dangerous nature of their crime and the death occurring during the immediate flight.

The Defendant, Major Participants and Co-Conspirators

For a person to be convicted of felony murder, they must have played a significant role in the felony committed, even if they did not directly cause the victim’s death. Major participants in the felony, such as the ringleader, the person who planned the crime, or even those who provided assistance or encouragement, can all be charged with felony murder if a death occurs during the commission of a dangerous felony. This element helps clarify that each person involved shares responsibility for the consequences of their actions, including death.

Similarly, co-conspirators who work together with the defendant can also be charged with felony murder even if they weren’t directly responsible for the victim’s death. If a co-conspirator knowingly participates in a dangerous felony’s planning and execution, they may be found guilty of playing a role in causing the death.

Examples and Scenarios

Consider the scenario of an armed robbery: A defendant and their co-felon plan and execute a robbery of a convenience store. The defendant holds the store’s clerk at gunpoint while the co-felon steals the cash. The store owner enters and attempts to intervene, leading to the co-felon shooting and killing the owner. In this case, both the defendant and co-felon would be charged with felony murder, as the death occurred during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony – armed robbery.

In the case of an attempted commission, a person commits a dangerous felony like arson by setting fire to a building. However, someone inside manages to put out the fire, and no one is killed. Even though there was no death, the person who committed the arson can still face serious criminal charges due to the inherently dangerous nature of their actions and the potential for significant harm.

Understanding felony murder charges and their complexities is essential to navigating the legal system effectively. By recognizing the key elements and potential consequences, defendants, lawyers, and jurors can ensure a fair and just trial for those involved.

Felony Murder and Modern Criminal Law

The landscape of criminal law has been ever-evolving, with varying approaches to different crimes across jurisdictions. One of the most controversial and debated aspects of the law is the concept of felony murder. This ancient, yet still very prevalent legal principle dictates that a person can be held responsible for a crime like murder if they commit (or even attempt to commit) a dangerous felony that “naturally and directly” results in someone’s death, even if they did not intend to kill the victim. Since its inception, this rule has undergone numerous transformations. In this article, we will delve into how the modern conceptions of felony murder have evolved, how states recognize it today, and the role of the merger doctrine and model penal code in shaping criminal laws surrounding this offense.

Modern Conceptions and State Recognition

The modern form of felony murder is quite different from the original common law rule. Contemporary criminal law scholars and courts have attempted to place limits on the scope of the felony murder rule and redefine its rationale to ensure a fairer and more just application of the law. The modern conception is often built around the idea that a defendant must have a certain level of culpability or moral blameworthiness for their actions to be considered a crime.

These changes to the doctrine have certainly had .an impact on how states recognize felony murder in their laws. Although most states still have some version of the felony murder rule, there is considerable variation in the specific definitions, conditions, and penalties. For instance, most jurisdictions have limited the types of felony offenses that can trigger the rule and have introduced various degrees of felony murder depending on factors like the defendant’s intent or the nature of the underlying felony. In contrast, almost half of the states have abolished the common law felony murder doctrine altogether or replaced it with a statutory provision.

The Merger Doctrine and Penal Codes

The emergence of the merger doctrine has also contributed to reshaping the felony murder rule in the modern era. The merger doctrine stipulates that if the underlying felony ‘merges’ with the act of killing, the defendant cannot be charged under the felony murder rule. The rationale behind this doctrine is to prevent tautologies and ensure the fair application of the law.

For example, if a defendant assaults a victim and the victim dies from their injuries, the assault is considered intrinsic to the killing. Therefore, the merger doctrine would prevent the defendant from being charged with felony murder.

Various penal codes in states across the United States have adopted different approaches to implementing the merger doctrine in their felony murder statutes. The model penal code, a framework designed to standardize and modernize criminal law across the country, takes a further step in restricting the felony murder rule by requiring specific intent to kill regardless of the underlying felony. While not all states have adopted the model penal code approach, this trend certainly highlights the ongoing legal reforms and modernizations that continue to shape criminal law in the 21st century.

In conclusion, although felony murder remains a contentious issue within modern criminal law, the evolution of this doctrine reflects society’s quest for a more equitable and rational legal system. The modern conceptions, state recognition, merger doctrine, and penal code adaptations are all contributing factors in ensuring the consequences of a crime align with the culpability of the offender.

Explaining Felony Murder FAQ

3. What is the difference between felony murder and first-degree murder?

The key difference between felony murder and first-degree murder lies in intent and the circumstances surrounding the crime. First-degree murder typically involves a premeditated or intentional act of killing another person. The accused planned and intended to take that person’s life, often out of malice or for personal gain.

On the other hand, felony murder is a death that occurs while the accused is committing another serious crime, such as robbery, kidnapping, arson, or sexual assault. In this case, the accused may not have necessarily planned or intended to kill someone, but their participation in that serious crime resulted in the victim’s death. Thus, their responsibility for the death is imposed by law, even if the alleged killer did not specifically intend to cause the victim’s death.

4. Is felony murder always considered a first-degree murder charge?

While felony murder is often charged as first-degree murder, this is not always the case. Depending on the jurisdiction, some states in the U.S. classify felony murder differently. Some states may charge felony murder as second-degree murder or another specific category altogether. However, felony murder charges generally carry a higher degree of severity compared to other forms of murder due to the dangerous circumstances surrounding the crime.

It is important to note that felony murder laws and classifications may vary from one jurisdiction to another. Therefore, it is crucial to consult legal advice when facing such charges to understand the specific implications and potential defenses in your case.

5. Can multiple people be charged with felony murder if they were part of the same crime?

Yes, all participants in a crime that results in a death can potentially be charged with felony murder, regardless of their specific role and whether they directly caused the victim’s death. This is known as the “felony murder rule,” which holds that anyone involved in committing a felony is responsible for any deaths that occur as a result of that crime.

For example, if three individuals participated in a bank robbery, and one robber shoots and kills a security guard during the crime, all three accomplices can be charged with felony murder – not just the one who fired the fatal shot. The principle behind this rule is to deter individuals from engaging in highly dangerous felonies that carry a high risk of causing death.

6. What defenses are available for someone charged with felony murder?

Defending against a felony murder charge can be complex and may depend on the specific circumstances of the case. Those facing these charges should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to explore possible legal strategies. Some of the potential defenses against a felony murder charge may include:

– Proving that the defendant did not participate in the underlying felony,

– Demonstrating that the victim’s death was not a direct result of or foreseen during the underlying felony,

– Arguing that the underlying felony did not fall under the qualifying felonies for felony murder in the jurisdiction,

– Asserting self-defense or defense of others if the killing was in response to a perceived threat, or

– Challenging the evidence or the credibility of witnesses to dismantle the prosecution’s case.

Richard Jones

Austin criminal defense attorney Richard Jones. This legal practice is dedicated to helping individuals like you—those caught in the crosshairs of criminal allegations and in dire need of dependable legal counsel. Richard also proficient in handling allegations related to theft crimes and is prepared to assist you during this stressful time.