As the overburdened criminal court system in America proves, not everyone makes the best decisions in life. Unfortunately, some decisions can come with severe and long-lasting consequences. If you're a participant in a felony crime and someone dies during the commission of that crime, you can be charged with murder based on the felony murder rule, even if you didn't have a direct hand in the person's death. Here's more information about this issue and a few possible ways to defend yourself against the charges in court.
What is the Felony Murder Rule?
The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine that assigns responsibility for a death that occurs during the commission of a felony crime to all participants in the criminal act. It differs from other types of murder charges because there does not need to be any intent to fatally harm someone; only that someone died. Though the law varies minimally between states, in general the only elements required to charge someone under the felony murder rule are:
- The defendant(s) must have been in the process of committing a felonious act
- A death occurred while the defendant(s) was attempting to commit the crime, in the act of committing the crime, or trying to escape the scene of the crime
- The death was a consequence of the defendants' commission of the crime
As noted previously, the person charged is not required to have had a direct hand in the deceased individual's death. For instance, four Indiana teens were charged with and convicted of felony murder when their friend was killed by the homeowner of the house they were attempting to burglarize in 2012.
As of 2014, approximately 43 states have felony murder rules on the books, and how the rule is applied does often depend on where you live. For example, in California, the felony committed must either be listed in the state's first-degree murder law or considered an inherently dangerous crime where the likelihood of someone getting hurt is high (e.g. burglary, arson).
The consequences associated with being charged under the felony murder rule vary depending on the actual charges the prosecutor pursues. In many states, you'll be charged with first-degree murder. In other states, such as New York, you may be charged with second-degree murder. In a little over half of the states with a felony murder rule laws, the prosecutors are allowed to request the death penalty.
Therefore, it's essential to work with your attorney to develop a viable strategy for effectively defending against the charges. There are a few ways you can fight against the conviction:
+Remove the Felonious Element
The heart of the felony murder rule rests in the crime committed being designated a felony. Disproving the crime was a felony or negotiating with the prosecution to reduce the charge to something lesser will remove that element and the associated felony murder charge.
+Review the Statutes
Another option is to review the felony murder rule statute and dispute the crime or your actions meet the minimum element required to be charged under this legal doctrine. For instance, an affirmative defense to the felony murder rule in New York is that neither you nor anyone in your group had a dangerous weapon. Therefore, your culpability for the murder may be reduced or eliminated based on that fact.
+Provide Legal Justification
Necessity could possibly be used to defend against the charges. During a burglary, one of the participants discovers another person being assaulted by someone else unrelated to their group. If the person kills the attacker while trying to stop the assault, the act may be ruled as justified because the person was coming to the aid of another.
There may be other ways to defend yourself against charges levied against you under the felony murder rule. Contact a criminal lawyer for assistance with developing the best defense possible for your case.