What is the Felony Murder Rule?

You won’t find the term “felony murder” in most criminal statutes. The unnamed term is generally just one of the definitions under a first-degree murder statute. First-degree murder is called a felony murder when a human being is killed during the commission of a felony. It’s a simple concept, but the details of when felony murder applies can be complicated. Below is a detailed examination of the application of the felony murder rule.

Felony Murder Doctrine: Who Can Be Charged?

It’s possible to be charged with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule even if there’s no intent to kill. All that’s necessary is the participation in the commission of a felony, where a death occurs during that felony, even if the defendant wasn’t the one who killed the victim. Typical situations include:

  • Solo Actor: The felony murder rule is applicable in situations where a person commits a felony alone. A common example is arson. The defendant sets fire to a building with no intention of harming anyone, yet an unintended person dies in the fire (which could include firefighters).
  • Two or More Actors: Another common situation is an armed robbery where only one of the participants shoots the victim. In these cases, all of the participants in the robbery can be charged with felony murder, even though they didn’t kill the victim nor were even present at the time the killing took place.
  • Victim or Bystander Killing: It’s also possible that felony murder applies in cases where none of the felony participants killed anyone, such as when the victim or a third-party bystander kills someone while trying to stop the robbery. Felony murder in these cases would apply if a victim, a third-party, or even one of the felony perpetrators gets killed by someone other than a felony participant.

Felony Murder Doctrine: Defenses

The description of what is considered a felony murder is statute-driven, but typically it requires a felony to be committed and the death to occur during the felony.

Did a Felony Occur?

One defense to felony murder is that the required felony didn’t take place. Some state statutes allow any felony to be considered, but most statutes require a “dangerous felony” in order to trigger the felony murder rule. The required felony will be enumerated in a state’s criminal statute, such as Kansas’s statute. These “dangerous felonies” generally include robbery, burglary, arson, kidnapping, or rape.

Was the Killing During the Commission of a Felony?

Another defense is that the killing didn’t take place during the felony. To counter this defense, some state statues, such as New York, have language allowing for felony murder to be charged when there’s an attempt and not just the act of the felony. For example, when bank robbers run over and kill a pedestrian on their way to robbing a bank, and decide not to rob the bank. The robbery never occurs, but it was attempted, therefore the killing of the pedestrian could constitute felony murder.

Felony Murder Doctrine: Penalties

Most states put the description of felony murder in their statutes for first-degree murder, which means that a charge of felony murder could subject a defendant to the death penalty. However, some states specifically limit the maximum penalty to life imprisonment. Still other states will allow judges to consider the explicit involvement of the defendant in the felony, and to provide lesser sentences based on the level of involvement.

Limitations on the Death Penalty for Felony Murder

The U.S. Supreme court has addressed whether a co-defendant could be subjected to the death penalty for a felony murder. In one case from 1982, the Supreme Court held that the State of Florida couldn’t execute a co-defendant who had a minor role in the felony, as that defendant didn’t kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill anyone involved.

However, the Supreme Court modified the limitation on the use of the death penalty in another felony murder case from 1987. In that case, the Court held that the death penalty could be administered in felony murder cases where the defendant was a major participant in the felony and the felony was committed with reckless indifference to human life.

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