Felony Murder Laws

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 What is the Definition of Felony Murder?

Felony murder is a legal concept where a murder occurs during the course of committing felonies. This type of murder is typically classified as first-degree murder.

Unlike other forms of murder, felony murder does not necessitate a specific intent to kill to be proven.

What Are the Elements of Felony Murder?

To successfully establish the crime of felony murder, the prosecution must demonstrate the following elements:

The Defendant Caused the Death of Another Person

In this element, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s actions directly or indirectly led to the death of another individual. For example, if a defendant was robbing a bank and accidentally discharged their firearm, resulting in the death of a bank teller, this element would be satisfied.

The Killing Transpired During the Commission of a Felony (Commonly Referred to as the “Underlying” or “Target” Felony)

The prosecution must establish that the killing occurred while the defendant was engaged in committing a felony.

For instance, if a defendant breaks into a home with the intent to steal and encounters the homeowner, leading to a struggle where the homeowner is killed, the killing took place during the commission of the burglary, which is a felony.

During the Commission of an Inherently Dangerous Felony

In some states, the killing must have happened during a felony such as kidnapping, burglary, arson, rape, or robbery. Certain state laws may also categorize other offenses, like carjacking, as inherently dangerous.

In these cases, the prosecution must show that the killing happened while the defendant was engaged in an inherently dangerous felony.

For example, if a defendant forcibly abducts a victim with the intent to hold them for ransom, and the victim dies during the kidnapping due to the defendant’s actions or inactions, this element would be satisfied.

In Certain States, a Defendant Only Needs to Attempt to Commit the Felony

In jurisdictions with this requirement, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant had attempted to commit the underlying felony, even if the felony was not completed.

For instance, if a defendant tries to commit an armed robbery but is interrupted by the police, and during the attempted escape, a bystander is killed, this element would be met.

The Defendant Had the Intent to Commit the Felony

Finally, the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to commit the underlying felony.

For example, if a defendant plans and executes a carjacking, forcibly removing the driver from the vehicle, and, in the process, unintentionally kills the driver, the defendant had the intent to commit the carjacking, satisfying this element.

Does Felony Murder Require an Intent to Kill?

Felony murder is considered first-degree murder and is penalized as such.

But there is a crucial distinction between first-degree murder and felony murder when it comes to intent.

By definition, first-degree murder involves a premeditated killing, meaning that the decision to kill was thought out and planned in advance.

First-degree murder is committed with the specific intent to kill the victim.

Conversely, a defendant can be convicted of felony murder even if the killing was not intentional or premeditated. Accidental killings can also qualify as felony murder. The required intent for felony murder is the intent to commit the underlying felony.

Can Accomplices Be Held Liable for Felony Murder?

An accomplice is a person who provides assistance, support, or encouragement to another individual in the commission of a crime.

The accomplice must perform an action that genuinely aids in perpetuating the offense. In most state felony murder statutes, an accomplice can be found guilty of felony murder even if they did not personally commit the underlying felony.

An accomplice can be deemed guilty if they intended for the target felony to be committed and a killing occurred as a result.

A typical example of an accomplice in a felony murder case is the “getaway car” driver who transports a bank robber to safety after the robbery is attempted or completed.

Serving as the getaway driver constitutes providing aid or assistance in the commission of a crime. As such, if a killing takes place during the robbery, the accomplice driver can be convicted of felony murder.

Some states impose limitations on accomplice liability for felony murder. In these jurisdictions, the law mandates that a person must personally commit the felony to be convicted of felony murder. In such states, the accomplice can be charged with the commission of the felony but not with felony murder.

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

In certain states, a defendant may be convicted of felony murder if specific circumstances are present.

For example, an individual can be found guilty of felony murder if:

  1. A police officer commits the killing in an attempt to prevent the underlying felony or another crime;
  2. The killing occurs accidentally while the defendant is trying to escape; or
  3. An accomplice is accidentally killed.

What Defenses are Available for Felony Murder?

A defendant may evade conviction for felony murder if they can demonstrate that the prosecution failed to prove one or more elements of the offense. For example, if the underlying crime was a misdemeanor, such as simple assault, instead of a felony, the elements of felony murder have not been established.

If someone was severely injured during the commission of the felony but did not die, the defendant cannot be convicted of felony murder either.

A defendant can also invoke the “merger doctrine” as a defense.

According to the merger doctrine, if the elements required to prove the underlying felony are part of the elements needed to prove murder, the defendant cannot be convicted of felony murder.

For example, the elements of felony assault form part of the elements necessary to prove felony murder. If someone is killed while 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 no longer constitutes a separate felony. Consequently, the assault cannot be the underlying felony required to prove felony murder.

What are the Penalties for Felony Murder?

States classify felony murder as first-degree murder for the purposes of sentencing. As a result, a defendant convicted of felony murder may face several years in prison to a life sentence.

In states where first-degree murder can be punished by death, a defendant who commits felony murder may be subject to the death penalty.

Do I Need Legal Assistance if I Am Charged with Felony Murder?

If you have been charged with felony murder, consult a criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area can inform you of your rights and provide representation in court. They can help formulate a defense and work towards the best possible outcome for your case.

LegalMatch is an online platform that connects people with experienced attorneys in their area who practice in the area of law related to their cases.

If you have been charged with felony murder and need legal assistance, LegalMatch can help you find a criminal defense attorney with the necessary experience to handle your case.

To use LegalMatch, visit our website and provide basic information about your case. You will then be matched with qualified attorneys in your area who are available to take on your case. You can review the attorney profiles and choose the one that best fits your needs.

Using LegalMatch can help you find an experienced criminal defense attorney who can provide the legal assistance you need when facing felony murder charges.

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