The Unsuspecting Murderer
Did you know that you could be convicted of murder and never personally take a life? Nope, you never pulled the trigger, never wielded a knife, never used a bludgeon, never even had a weapon. You can go to prison for murder even if it wasn’t by your own hands or if the death was an accident.
It’s called the felony murder rule. Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as: “At common law, one whose conduct brought about an unintended death in the commission or attempted commission of a felony was guilty of murder (e.g. a homicide committed during an armed robbery).” Black’s Law Dictionary. Henry Campbell Black, M.A. 1990.
Basically, it says while you were busy breaking one law, you should’ve known that very bad things could happen.
The theory is alive and well in the majority of states, but most people have never heard of it! The particulars vary from state to state, including which crimes trigger the doctrine and take the unintended death from a manslaughter to a first degree murder.
Here are three common examples:
1. You and your buddies break into someone’s home to steal some electronics. You watched the house for awhile and thought no one was home. Well, you were wrong. The homeowner catches you in the act. Everyone runs. The homeowner shoots one of your friends. Your friend dies. Neither you or your friends were armed. You and your surviving friend are charged with first degree murder.
2. You and your buddy decide to snatch an elderly man’s wallet. You run up to the man and punch him one time. The man falls and hits his head on the ground. Your friend grabs the wallet and you take off running. Three weeks later, the man dies from complications from his head injury. You and your friend are charged with first degree murder.
3. You and your buddies rob a fast food joint. The plan is for two of your friends to enter and pretend they have guns, by sticking their hands in their pockets. You are the lookout. You never enter the building. After your friends enter, you hear shots fired in the restaurant. As it turns out, one of your friends brought a real gun. It accidentally went off when he and the security guard struggled over it. The security guard dies. You and your other friend had no idea he had it. You are arrested and charged with first degree murder.
When I heard about this doctrine in law school, I thought this was the most inhumane law on the books. How could someone be legally responsible for a death that he didn’t actually cause? What happened to intent? How can you be guilty of a crime you had no desire to bring about and that you personally didn’t act upon?
It wasn’t until I saw the Felony Murder Rule start to play out in courtrooms that I realized how devastating the law really is.
I’ve seen teens who were dragged into crimes by much older uncles or cousins, end up receiving a life sentence for simply being the lookout. I’ve witnessed drunk and foolish twenty-somethings become shell-shocked with a double-digit prison sentence, because of literally one punch.
I’ve heard tell of what would have simply been a schoolyard fight between teens, end up with all of the boys on one side going to prison for decades because someone in the group picked up a brick or stone to defend himself. Someone died as a result.
This is one of the hardest things to explain to criminal defendants and their families. They struggle to understand how one can be charged with murder when their individual actions did not cause that death, when they did not plan to harm or kill anyone.
I’m sure the original purpose of the law was deterrence. However, deterrence requires knowledge. First, citizens must know the law exists. If an impressible teen knew that climbing into a window to steal and XBox or jumping someone for their iPhone could land you on trial for murder, he or she may think twice before making one stupid mistake that ruins countless lives.
Meanwhile, the ill-informed will continued to be ill-fated.