Felony murder is a murder that takes place when a defendant commits certain felonies. This type of murder is usually punished as first-degree murder. A specific intent to kill is not required to prove felony murder. State laws may vary regarding the exact details of the definition of the crime.

What are the Elements of the Crime of Felony Murder?

To prove the crime of felony murder, the prosecution must show:

  • The defendant took the life of another person;
  • The killing took place during the commission of a felony (referred to as the “underlying: or “target” felony);
    • Some states require that the killing take place during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony. Inherently dangerous felonies include kidnapping, burglary, arson, rape, and robbery. Some state laws also classify other defenses, such as carjacking, as inherently dangerous;
    • In some states, a defendant need only attempt to commit the felony; and
  • The defendant intended to commit the felony.

Does the Crime of Felony Murder Require an Intent to Kill?

In most states, felony murder is regarded as first-degree murder, and is punished accordingly. There is a significant difference between first-degree murder and felony murder when it comes to intent. First-degree murder is, by definition, a premeditated killing. This means the decision to kill was planned out beforehand. First-degree murder is committed with the specific intent to kill the victim.

In contrast, a defendant may be convicted of felony murder even if the killing was not committed deliberately or with premeditation. The killing can be committed accidentally. The intent that is required for felony murder is the intent to commit the felony. 

Can Accomplices be Found Guilty of Felony Murder?

An accomplice is an individual who provides assistance, aid, or encouragement to another in that person’s committing a crime. The accomplice must do something that actually assists in the commission of the offense. Under most state felony murder laws, an accomplice can be guilty of felony murder even if the accomplice did not physically commit the felony. Under these laws, an accomplice can be guilty if the accomplice intended that the felony (called the “target felony”) be committed, and the killing took place. 

A common example of an individual who is an accomplice to a felony murder is the “getaway car” driver who drives a bank robber to safety after the robbery is attempted or completed. Acting as the getaway driver constitutes aid or assistance in committing a crime. Therefore, if a killing occurs when the robbery is taking place, the accomplice driver can be convicted of felony murder.

Some states limit accomplice liability for felony murder. In these states, the law requires that a person must commit the felony themselves to be convicted of felony murder. In these states, the accomplice can be charged with committing the felony, but not with felony murder. 

Under What Other Circumstances Can Someone Be Charged With Felony Murder?

In some states, the defendant can be convicted of felony murder if specific facts are present. For example, an individual can be convicted of felony murder if:

  • The killing is committed by a police officer in an effort to prevent the felony or another crime;
  • The killing occurs accidentally when the defendant is trying to escape; or
  • The accomplice is accidentally killed. 

What are Defenses to Felony Murder?

A defendant may avoid conviction for felony murder if defendant can show the prosecution failed to prove one or more elements of the offense. If, for example, the underlying crime is a misdemeanor such as simple assault, rather than a felony, the elements of felony murder have not been proven. In addition, if someone was seriously injured during the commission of the felony, but the person did not die, the defendant cannot be convicted of felony murder.

A defendant can also assert the “merger doctrine” as a defense. Under the merger doctrine, if the elements needed to prove the underlying felony are part of the elements needed to prove murder, defendant cannot be convicted of felony murder.  

For example, the elements of felony assault form part of the elements needed to prove felony murder. If someone is killed when the defendant is committing a felony assault, the elements of the felony assault “merge” into the elements of murder. Since the assault “merges” into the murder, the assault is no longer a distinct, separate felony. Therefore, the assault cannot constitute the underlying felony needed to prove felony murder. 

What is the Punishment for Felony Murder?

Felony murder is a crime in most states. Most states classify felony murder as first-degree murder for sentencing purposes. This means that a defendant who is convicted of felony murder may face a jail sentence ranging anywhere from several years, to imprisonment for life. In states in which first-degree murder can be punished by death, a defendant who commits felony murder may be executed.

Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer if I am Charged with Felony Murder?

Felony-murder is a complex criminal charge. If you are charged with felony murder, you should consult a criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney near you can advise you as to your rights and can represent you in court.