I’m giving you a gift today. It’s a lovely little plot opportunity, courtesy of an important but rarely understood aspect of US law. That gift? The felony murder rule.
Here’s a succinct version of the law:
If a defendant causes a death while committing a felony, the defendant is liable for murder—regardless of whether he intended to kill anyone.
It’s a vital twist on homicide law because usually murder requires intent to kill. But under the felony murder doctrine, if our defendant causes a death in the course of committing a felony, he can be charged with murder instead of manslaughter. The prosecutor won’t have to prove intent to kill, and the defendant will face a harsher sentence. In fact, historically those convicted under the doctrine could be sentenced to death.
But wait! There’s more!
The felony murder doctrine also makes a person liable for deaths caused by his colleagues. So if Alice and Betty rob a liquor store, and Alice shoots the clerk and kills him, they can both be charged with felony murder. Even if Betty wasn’t aware the gun was loaded or had begged Alice not to kill anyone. And of course a savvy prosecutor might use this to his advantage, especially if he has it in for Betty. He can make a deal with Alice: she pleads out to a lesser charge and, in return, testifies against Betty in a first-degree murder case. Result? Alice spends a few years in prison while poor Betty’s locked up forever. Fair? Maybe not. But perfectly legal and not uncommon. Think of the plot possibilities.
It gets even better. Suppose Alice is soft-hearted and carries a realistic toy gun rather than a real one. But when she pulls the gun out, the clerk takes one look and drops dead from a heart attack. Still felony murder. Alice and Betty spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Oh, but I can do you one better. Now suppose Alice and Betty walk into the liquor store with the toy gun, but this time the clerk pulls out a very real gun and blows Alice away. Due to the self-defense doctrine, the clerk’s very unlikely to be convicted of anything. But Betty? You guessed it: felony murder. Same goes if it’s a cop who shoots Alice. The cop has probably exercised appropriate use of force, but Betty’s out of luck.
The Supreme Court held that people can’t be sentenced to death if they were only minor participants in the crime. But that doesn’t mean they have to actually pull the trigger. If they were major participants and indifferent to human life, they may still be eligible for the death penalty. And in any case, they can still get life or life without parole, depending on the jurisdiction.
Some states also limit the crimes for which the doctrine applies—generally to inherently violent or dangerous ones. And most say that the death must be reasonably foreseeable. But the doctrine can be applied pretty broadly. Consider, for example, a recent case in which a shoplifting suspect was chased by a motorcycle officer; the bike crashed and the officer died. The suspect is facing life in prison. Or another recent case in which a group of armed young men allegedly chased a couple. The victims ran onto a busy road and were struck by a pickup truck, injuring the man and killing the woman.
Suspects rarely know about felony murder—a circumstance police can use to their advantage. If the cops are interrogating Betty, who doesn’t know about the doctrine and has been unwise enough not to lawyer up, they might easily get her to admit to the robbery. She thinks she’s getting herself off the hook for murder by making statements to the effect that all she intended to do was rob the store. But in doing so, she’s implicating herself for felony murder.
There. It’s a good gift. Use it well!