Criminal Law

Murder during the Commission of a Felony

The taking of another life is considered one of the most serious situations in society. The killing of one human being by another is called a homicide. Some homicides may be intentional and others may be accidental. Not all homicides are against the law. For example, a person threatened with death by a criminal may have the legal right to use self-defense, even if it results in the death of the criminal.

Murder is the unlawful taking of another life. It's usually the result of an intentional act for the purpose of causing death or an act that shows a depraved indifference to human life. Because of the bad intent on the part of the criminal, society has chosen to give the harshest punishments to criminals that commit murder. This may be a long prison sentence or even death.

One common form of murder is called felony murder. A felony murder is when a person is killed during the commission of a felony. A felony is a serious crime that's usually punishable by more than one year in prison. There are certain key differences between felony murder and most other forms of murder.

Felony Murder Rule

Most forms of murder require an intent to commit death. Felony murder only requires the intent to commit the felony. During the course of the felony, any homicide will be considered murder, whether it's intentional or accidental. This is called the felony murder rule.

Under the felony murder rule, all participants of a felony can be charged with murder if a homicide occurs. This is true even if a participant isn't directly responsible for the death. For example, the driver of a getaway car can be charged with felony murder if his partner accidently shoots someone while attempting to rob a bank. The purpose for the felony murder rule is to deter people from engaging in felonies knowing that they can be liable for the actions of their partners.

Limitations on the Felony Murder Rule

Many people disagree with the felony murder rule. They find the rule unfair since it doesn't take into account the criminal's intent to kill. Since a criminal can be charged with murder for someone else's act, the law doesn't differentiate between a person who has bad intentions and one who has no bad intentions.

Most states have limitations on when the rule can be used. The felony must usually be a dangerous crime or committed in a dangerous manner. Some examples of felonies that'll support the felony murder rule include:

  • Robbery
  • Rape
  • Sodomy
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Kidnapping
  • Escape from law enforcement

If the elements of a felony are included in the elements of murder, that felony can't support the felony murder rule. This is called the merger doctrine. For example, an assault with a deadly weapon that leads to death will usually not be considered felony murder. Even though the assault may be a felony, the elements of causing physical injury with the intent to seriously injure are included in the murder crime.

Some states have abolished the felony murder rule while others have severely limited it. The states that apply the rule usually classify felony murder as first-degree murder. First-degree murder is a murder committed with premeditation, during a serious felony or with extreme cruelty.

Many states will impose the death penalty for first-degree murder. However, there are restrictions for imposing a death penalty for felony murder. The death penalty can't be imposed on someone who didn't kill, attempt to kill or intend to kill during a felony. However, the death penalty may be imposed on a major participant of the felony who acted with extreme indifference to human life.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I be charged with felony murder if someone dies while I am driving under the influence?
  • How long does the commission of a felony last for the felony murder rule? What if one of the participants to a robbery kills someone a few days after the robbery while trying to escape the police?
  • Can I be charged with felony murder for loaning a car to the participants of a kidnapping that ended in an accidental murder?

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