The felony murder rule is a rule that allows a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder for a killing that occurs during a dangerous felony, even if the defendant is not the killer. The felony murder rule applies only to those crimes that are considered “inherently dangerous,” as the rationale underlying the felony murder rule is that certain crimes are so dangerous that society wants to deter individuals from engaging in them altogether. Thus, when a person participates in an inherently dangerous crime, he or she may be held responsible for the fatal consequences of that crime, even if someone else caused the actual death.
The felony murder rule is an exception to the normal rules of homicide. Normally, a defendant can be convicted of murder only if a prosecutor shows that the defendant acted with the intent to kill or with a reckless indifference to human life. Under the felony murder rule, however, a defendant can be convicted of murder even if the defendant did not act with intent or a reckless indifference; the prosecution must show only that the defendant participated in a felony where fatalities occurred.
Inherently Dangerous Crimes
Did You Know?
State laws vary, but often the defendant need not have anticipated another person’s death to be guilty under the felony murder rule.
Inherently dangerous crimes may vary by state, but typically include burglary, robbery, rape, arson and kidnapping. However, under the merger doctrine, if the elements of the underlying felony are a part of the elements of murder, the felony murder rule cannot be applied. For example, a defendant who participated in an assault in which someone was killed could not be charged with felony murder because the elements of assault are also incorporated in the elements of a murder. Thus, the assault “merges” into the murder and is not a distinct crime that can constitute the underlying felony.
Felony murder can arise in a variety of circumstances, many of which may seem surprising. For example, if a defendant and his partner attempt to rob a gas station and his partner fires a warning shot to scare the store clerk, but it accidentally hits another customer, both the defendant and his partner can be charged with murder, even though the defendant did not have the gun. Similarly, if a man sets fire to his neighbor’s shed because he does not like the shed and the fire spreads to another neighbor’s house, killing those inside, the man can be charged with murder even though he never intended to harm anyone. Because of these complexities, it is important to remember that involvement in an inherently dangerous crime that results in fatalities can lead to murder charges for all those involved.
The Limits of the Felony Murder Rule
Some states, like California, have laws preventing prosecution under the felony murder rule for people who do not participate in the killing or are not a major participant in the crime. California’s law was enacted in 2018.
Almost every state in the United States has a felony murder rule, and federal law recognizes the felony murder rule, as well. In most states, felony murder is categorized as a first-degree murder and can result in sentencing from several years to a life imprisonment. In almost half of these states, felony murder is considered a capital offense, which means that the death penalty is available. However, the Supreme Court has imposed additional restrictions on states that seek to impose the death penalty for a felony murder. In Enmund v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the death penalty cannot be imposed on a defendant who had only a minor role in the underlying felony, such as any individuals who did not participate in the killing, or did not intend to kill during the felony. However, in Tison v. Arizona, the Supreme Court concluded that the death penalty could be considered for a defendant convicted of felony murder who was a significant participant in the underlying felony and who acted with reckless indifference to human life.