Felony murder is a rule that creates an exception to the mens rea requirement for first- or second-degree murder charges. It allows a defendant to be charged with murder as a result of a death that occurred when the defendant committed a felony.

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Legal Definition

States have their own laws defining the crime of murder. Many of those statutes specify that if a death occurs as a result of a felony, the defendant can be charged with either first- or second-degree murder. Those statutes have incorporated the felony murder rule.

This legal doctrine has also been incorporated into federal law. Here’s the relevant portion of how 18 U.S. Code § 1111 defines murder: “Every murder … committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery … is murder in the first degree.”

Meaning

The meaning of the rule is simple. If you attempt to commit or actually commit a felony and someone dies because of it, you can face murder charges even if you didn’t mean for anyone to lose their life.

Here’s how this could work. If you are robbing a bank and your getaway driver hits a pedestrian as you flee the scene, you could be charged with murder because the death occurred while you were committing a felony offense. Alternatively, if you were robbing a store with a friend and the store clerk shot and killed your friend, you could be charged with your friend’s murder.

Some states have imposed certain limits on this rule, requiring, for example, either some actual involvement in the death, some degree of intent or at least reckless disregard for human life.

In general, though, the basic rule is that intent to commit a felony is enough to result in a defendant being charged with murder if things go wrong and someone is killed.

In some states, felony murder can be charged even if the victim was not murdered during the crime. For example, in a California case, a defendant committed burglary at the home of a man with heart disease. He died of a heart attack due to shock and fear. The burglar was convicted of felony murder.

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Criminal defense,

Last Update: June 17, 2024