Felony murder is any killing that that happens during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony, and is usually punished as first-degree murder. Felony murder can also occur during the commission of any number of crimes that are defined by a state’s felony murder statute.

What Is an Inherently Dangerous Felony?

Main types of inherently dangerous felonies are:

  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping

Keep in mind that in many states, felony murder is defined by statute. Therefore the list above is certainly not exhaustive. For example, in California, someone may be charged under a theory of felony murder if a death occurs while they are carjacking, train wrecking, using explosives or weapons of mass destruction, in addition to many other crimes.

Can an Accidental Killing Be Classified as First Degree Murder?

Yes. As defined above, felony murder is any killing that happens during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the killing was accidental, to be convicted of felony murder one must be merely convicted of the underlying felony where a killing has occurred. Keep in mind. felony murder is punished the same as first-degree murder.

What Is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is an intentional killing done with premeditation and deliberation. By contrast, felony murder does not require that the killing be premeditated or deliberate. Rather, the intent element is sufficient, and is fulfilled through the successful conviction of the inherently dangerous felony.

First-degree murder is the most serious crime in any criminal code and, depending on the state, can carry a sentence ranging from life imprisonment without parole to the death penalty.

Why Is It Felony Murder If the Defendant Never Intended to Kill?

Felony murder finds its roots in an old legal doctrine known as transferred intent. The doctrine of transferred intent essentially places the intent of one proven crime into the intent requirement of another crime.

Under transferred intent, the law basically presumes that if the defendant intended to commit an inherently dangerous felony, then the defendant should have foreseen that his actions would cause harm to others. Therefore, the intent requirement for murder is satisfied.

What about Accomplices Who Did Not Commit the Actual Murder?

The answer will vary from state to state, but in general, only the defendant who is directly response for the killing during the felony act will be charged with felony murder. The Supreme Court has flat out declined to allow an accomplice who does not kill or attempt to kill to be sentenced to death. Some states will decline to charge the accomplice for a killing they did not do. The accomplice will, however, be charged for the original felony.

How Does Felony Murder Interact With Three Strikes Laws?

Three strikes laws are laws that extend punishments if a person is found guilty of three or more felonies. The interaction with felony murder can be disastrous for defendants who are charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter can either be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstance. If a three strikes law is in effect, a misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter may turn into a felony. If the involuntary manslaughter turns into a felony, and a person was killed, the felony murder rule may also trigger.

A few states have provisions against this from happening, although the decision to turn the involuntary manslaughter into a felony and the decision to trigger the felony murder rule is typically up to the prosecutor and the judge.

Should I Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

Since the laws for felony murder vary by state, consulting a criminal defense lawyer familiar with your state laws immediately is crucial, and the only way to learn of your rights and possible defenses.