Felony Murder: Overview and Examples of Criminal Situations

Murder is often defined as the crime of intentionally killing another person with no legal justification. At common law, "felony murder" or the "felony murder rule" describes when, during the commission of a felony, another person is killed or dies. 

The felony offender may be charged with murder due to the death. The specific intent to kill the other person need not be present. The intent to commit the felony at issue is sufficient.

Yet, the term "felony murder" isn't directly used in most criminal laws. States generally incorporate terms consistent with the felony murder rule into the elements of the crime of murder in state criminal statutes.

Origins of Felony Murder Laws

The felony murder rule originated in England in 1716 but was abolished there in 1957. The United States continues to use the concept in many states today.

It's a simple concept, but the details of when felony murder applies can be complicated. It is applied to relevant cases in the U.S. But it may put people in prison for murders they did not directly commit.

There are some calls for reform throughout the states. One reform organization is the Felony Murder Law Reform (FMLR) in Minnesota. As a result, the felony murder rule may not look the same in each state.

In certain states, a felony murder conviction can expose the offender to the death penalty. Criminal justice experts and advocates have called upon courts and legislators to require a uniform standard of intent as a prerequisite to capital punishment in these cases.

Felony Murder Doctrine: Who Can Be Charged?

Under the felony murder rule, a defendant can face criminal charges of first-degree murder or second-degree murder without a specific intent to kill. You can learn the difference between first, second, and third degree murder, and read about other common topics in FindLaw's Criminal Law section

The crime only needs a few qualifications for the law to apply. The offense must include the following:

  • The defendant participating in the commission of a qualifying felony
  • A death of a human being occurs during that felony

Someone can be charged with felony murder even if they aren't the one who killed the victim. The defendant can intentionally or accidentally kill someone or merely be present as the death happens.

Felony Murder Examples and Typical Situations

Typical situations for felony murder include:

  • Solo Actor
  • Two or more actors
  • Victim or bystander killing

These types of situations are further defined below.

Solo Actor Definition

The felony murder rule applies when a person commits a felony where no other person is present. A typical example is committing arson.

Let's say someone sets fire to a building but has no intention to hurt or kill anyone. Yet, an unintended person dies in the fire, such as a firefighter working to extinguish the fire.

The felony murder rule can apply to the firefighter's death even though the arson-committing felon wasn't intentionally trying to kill them. The arsonist can be charged with the murder of the firefighter.

Two or More Actors Definition

If one or more people are participating in the felony, they can all be charged with felony murder. One such example is an armed robbery. If a group engages in the robbery but only one person shoots and kills the victim, all participants can be charged with felony murder towards the victim.

Felony murder can apply even when the felon at issue:

  • Did not kill the victim
  • Had no intention of hurting anyone
  • Was not even present at the time the killing took place (an accomplice before or after the crime)

Some jurisdictions also have complicity or "aiding and abetting" laws that hold a person responsible for someone else's actions if they were present at the time of the crime and took some action supportive of their crime. These laws often require the complicit party to have the same intent as the primary party.

If a complicit party's intent was to commit a felony, they may be considered a participant in the crime. If a death occurred during the felony, then they may be charged under the felony murder rule.

Victim or Bystander Killing Definition

Felony murder could apply even if no participant in the felony killed anyone. For example, the offender intends to commit the felony of robbing a bank. A third-party bystander, a bank worker, tries to stop the robbery. They pull out a gun aiming to shoot the offending bank robber but instead hit and kill a customer at the bank. The offending bank robber can be charged with felony murder even though he did not shoot anyone. The bystander shot and killed the customer accidentally.

Felony Murder Defense: Did a Felony Occur?

One common defense to felony murder charges is that the commission of the felony did not occur. Felony murder charges require a felony to take place. Some state statutes allow any felony to be considered. Still, most laws require a "dangerous felony" to trigger the felony murder rule.

The required felony will be explained in your state's criminal statute. These "dangerous felonies" generally include violent crimes such as robbery, burglary, arson, kidnapping, or rape.

These can also be referred to as "underlying felony" offenses. An underlying offense must present a genuine, clear, and predictable danger to someone's life.

Felony Murder Defense: Did The Killing Happen During the Commission of a Felony?

Another defense is that the killing didn't take place during the felony. Perhaps the death occurs weeks, months, or years later. For example, in a domestic dispute, a wife strikes her husband with the party's car while he is standing in the driveway, telling her not to leave.

The husband suffers major injuries and is in and out of the hospital for two years. He then dies from conditions that first developed from his injuries from the driveway incident. The wife pled guilty to aggravated assault (a felony) six months after the incident.

In this example, can a felony murder charge be brought after the husband's death? It depends on the circumstances and the laws of the state where the incident happened.

This is a change from the old common-law rule that homicide charges must be filed within a year and a day of the crime. Advances in forensic science are partly credited with the "year and a day" rule being changed. Today, delayed murder charges may be brought years later.

Some state statutes, such as New York, have legal language allowing for felony murder to be charged when there's an attempt and not just the act of the felony.

Example of Felony Murder: Merger Doctrine

Let's use a bank robbery as an example. The bank robbers might run over and kill a pedestrian on their way to rob a bank. Then they decide to leave the scene and not rob the bank. The robbery never occurred, but it was attempted. Therefore, the killing of the pedestrian could constitute felony murder.

Use of the felony murder rule may also be limited by the merger doctrine adopted by the courts. The merger doctrine provides that a felony murder case cannot proceed where the underlying felony offense merges into the murder.

In practical application, the merger rule prevents every felony assault that becomes fatal from becoming a felony murder case. Without the merger rule, lesser homicide offenses like involuntary manslaughter may not be properly considered.

California Supreme Court: People v. Sarun Chun

In People v. Sarun Chun (2009), the California Supreme Court overturned a felony murder case conviction. The case involved a drive-by shooting. The defendant was a backseat passenger who denied being the shooter. A victim in another car was shot and killed in the incident.

The jury acquitted the defendant of attempted murder and shooting at the vehicle. It convicted him of felony participation in a gang and felony murder based on the lower court's instructions on felony murder.

The court concluded there was no proof of collateral intent on the defendant's part to cause death and that the underlying felony of shooting into the vehicle was of an assaultive nature and merged into the homicide.

Felony Murder Doctrine: Penalties

Many states put the description of felony murder in their statutes for first-degree murder, which means that a charge of felony murder could subject a defendant to the death penalty.

However, some states, such as Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, and Massachusetts, have abolished the death penalty and specifically limit the maximum penalty to life imprisonment.

Still, other states may classify felony murder as murder in the second degree. They may also provide for an affirmative defense or otherwise allow judges to consider the explicit involvement of the defendant in the felony. This can provide lesser sentences based on a lower level of participation in the crime.

In California, the state modified the application of its felony murder law in 2018. In the vast majority of cases, to charge felony murder, the state must demonstrate:

  • The felon actually commit the killing
  • They acted with the intent to commit the killing
  • They were a major participant and acted with reckless indifference to human life

However, under California Penal Code section 189, if the victim of the killing is a police officer engaged in their duties, then the intent to commit the underlying felony remains sufficient.

Death Penalty Limitations for Felony Murder

Defendants and co-defendants can face the death penalty for felony murder. There have been conflicting cases on this matter.

In Enmund v. Florida (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the State of Florida couldn't execute a co-defendant who was the getaway driver in an armed robbery. The Court found that the co-defendant had a minor role in the felony and didn't kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill anyone involved.

It concluded that the Eighth Amendment prohibited a death sentence under these circumstances as execution would be cruel and unusual punishment when there was no proof of his culpability for the killings.

Revised Death Penalty Limitations for Felony Murder: Tison v Arizona (1987)

However, the U.S. Supreme Court later modified the limitation on using the death penalty in Tison v Arizona (1987). Under different facts, the Court considered the death sentence for two brothers who had taken arms into a prison to assist in the escape of prisoners. They then engaged in a roadside robbery of the victims.

One of the escaped prisoners then shot and killed the victims in the presence of the brothers. The Court distinguished the circumstances of this felony murder case from Enmund.

The Court held that sufficient culpability can be shown and the death penalty can be administered in a felony murder cases where:

  1. The defendant was a significant participant in the felony
  2. The felony was committed with "reckless indifference to human life"

Felony Murder Charges Need an Experienced Attorney

Felonies are extremely serious. But when a death occurs during that felony, the penalties can be harsh. Learning about the felony murder statute of your state can help you evaluate the use of a felony murder charge in a given situation.

If you seek more in-depth information or advice on a legal case, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as early as possible. They can help you or a loved one protect your rights and develop a legal strategy.

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