Felony Murder Statute

August 25, 2009

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The felony murder statute (or felony murder rule) seems to pop up in the news every now and then, but the general public does not seem to have a great deal of awareness of it.  Some people think that the term simply refers to “normal” murder.  In fact, it is a special type of murder.  So, today, I’ll weigh in on the felony murder statute.

Although the specifics vary by state, the core of the statute is quite simple.  If you are involved in the execution of a felony and someone dies, you can be charged with first degree murder in their death.  This most often applies to cases involving robbery, rape, arson, burglary, terrorism, kidnapping, carjacking, and escape.

The felony murder statute can apply even if it’s not one of the “good guys” who dies.  For example, let’s take the case of robbery.  If you and your friend rob a bank and the police shoot and kill your friend when you attempt to flee, it is you who will be charged with the murder, not the police officer.  This is why, at times, you will see a defense attorney declaring that his client should not be convicted, because he did not kill anyone.  Indeed, his client did not directly cause anyone’s death.

What, exactly, is the theory behind the felony murder statute?  The theory is that the perpetrators of the crime are engaged in acts that are inherently dangerous, and that they should know that there is a relatively high likelihood that the activity could result in death.

Opponents of the statute claim that it is unjust, because the perpetrators never intended to kill anyone.  Thus they lack “mens rea” (premeditation), which is typically must occur in order for a crime to qualify as first degree murder (deaths that do not involved mens rea are typically prosecuted as lesser crimes).  While the perpetrators may have premeditated the robbery, they did not premeditate the death.

Supporters counter the lack of mens rea by saying that transferred intent exists; that is, the intent to commit the underlying felony transfers to other activities that occur during the commission of the felony.

Where do I stand on this issue?  Although I am often liberal in my views, I come down firmly in favor of the felony murder statute.  I believe that this is a case were common sense should substitute for mens rea.  Although the perpetrators did not specifically intend to cause death, it is only logical that certain types of activities have a high probability of resulting in a death.  Not only does the felony murder statute serve to adequately punish the criminals, but it is also my hope that it will cause some people to stop and think before committing crimes such as robbery and arson.

What are your thoughts?  Does anyone want to offer a counter-argument?  The floor is yours.

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