Criminal Justice

More Felony Murder Folly


By now you've probably seen the horrifying video of the two Phoenix news helicopters crashing and burning while covering a police chase last week. The guy who led police on the chase, Christopher Jones, clearly needs to spend some time in prison. But is he a murderer? I'd say he pretty clearly isn't. He's a car thief.

Nevertheless, Arizona officials are looking for a way to charge him with four homicides for the deaths of the news crews in the helicopters.

Though the article linked above is bearish on the possibility, a defense attorney in Arizona emailed me over the weekend to say that Arizona's felony murder law is apparently exceptionally broad, and he wouldn't be at all surprised to see homicide charges come out of this.

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  1. they’re definitely pushing for murder charges on Fox News. Saw this story over the weekend – talk about blond newsbabe bloodlust!

  2. Weren’t we just discussing this last week with a DUI cop crashing on the way to a chase?


  3. The two idiots doing the flying killed themselves,and all for ratings.

  4. I find it difficult to muster much sympathy for the “victims;” think of them as bloodsucking ghouls, fighting for position to get a good shot of a crash. It worked. Maybe they will all get posthumous Pulitzers.

    Should the car thief be charged with murder? Absolutely not.

  5. They should charge every person viewing the news footage with murder. That’s really who caused the crash…and the pilots too.

  6. The crash of the choppers is not a reasonably foreseeable result (or risk) of the perp’s decision to flee. Had he hit a baby carriage along the way, sure, but he can’t be responsible for what is going on up in the sky above him.

  7. So if I’m trying to elude the cops in my car, and they’re chasing me, and clear on the other side of town some people get into a multiple car accident with fatalities, can I then be charged for their murders on the argument that the police chase changed traffic patterns resulting in their deaths? How about if I’m running from the cops on foot and the act of moving my arms back and forth while running generates a wind current that eventually starts a typhoon in Bangladesh that kills 10,000 people. Am I responsible for their deaths too?

    It’s unbelieveable how ridiculous prosecutors are being with this crap. If they think car thieves or people eluding cops are such a horrible threat to society, then they should push legislators to make the penalties for doing those things harsher. But tagging on non-crimes to create harsher jail times (and to generate better publicity for re-election campaigns) will eventually have disastrous consequences for our legal system if it persists.

  8. As Dennis Miller once said about televised high speed chases:

    “Hey, Airwolf! Shoot the fricking tires out and put Frasier back on!”

    Personally, I’d go for some show other than Frasier, but it takes all kinds.

  9. The butterfly in Japan that flapped his wings 3 years ago is guilty. Hooray for non-causality!

  10. I blame Igor Sikorsky.

  11. Randolph, it wasn’t the butterfly’s fault that somebody collapsed the wave function.

  12. I have to wonder if they would bother with the charges if the crash happened during, say, one of those times that the media had choppers up to get a glimpse of Paris going to jail or something like that.

    My magic 8-ball says “Very doubtful”

    Sad thing is that they will probably get away with it since no one will want to defend a car thief.

  13. Fine then, the blame rests squarely on the fabric of space-time.

  14. Another problem is that a jury would probably convict for murder. Most folks show up for jury duty thinking they are part of the prosecution team.

    Charging this car thief with murder should be laughed out of the court room by jurors. It won’t be.

    The car thief should be punished for what he did, grand theft auto and eluding police. Nail him for it, but don’t make the law a joke by charging him with murder.

  15. It happened in upstate New York just last year. A state trooper was killed trying to catch a motorcyclist on a curvy road in his Chevy Tahoe. He slid off the road and into a tree. The kid on the motorcycle has been convicted and is now serving time. Google “Craig Todeschini” for the details…

  16. Damn… if only this chopper crash had occurred during the OJ chase…


  17. There was an identical scenario that happened a decade and change ago that’s made it into several criminal law texts. Car chase, one news chopper hit another, and they both went down. The defendant was convicted of felony murder and it was upheld on appeal. I remember being pretty shocked at the time, but now it seems fairly common sense: the point of felony murder charges is to convict people for the foreseeable risks they create by dint of their asshole-ery. You’d have to be some TV-less hippie or off-the-grid militiaman to not be able to foresee that newscopters would follow a chase and that that creates substantial risk.

  18. Cracker’s Boy, that’s why this one’s called “More Felony Murder Folly”.

    Radley will never run out of these I think. We’ll probably have another next week.

    When I first heard this story I suspected they would try this.

    It’s sort of like the story from a few years back about the guy who killed a police dog that was chasing him and was facing a murder of police officer charge untill the state attorney realized that a dog is still a dog.

    That story may be an urban legend but it is perfectly consistent with the police clique’s fetish on itself.

    I’m not sure why the cops are sympathetic to members of the media though. I mean aren’t those guys down there with the liberal bleeding heart judges that are aleways puting the perps back on the street?

  19. Charge the TV audience with murder. They’re the ones that get it on TV, by increasing the ratings.

    No audience for it, no helicopters.

    The media are innocent victims of audience taste. Supply and demand.

  20. jpe: if the mere fact that news copters were in the air was a “substantial risk” they wouldn’t be allowed to fly in the first place.

  21. Is it possible to charge us, the shallow viewing public, who, after all, made all this possible?
    We have far more wealth than the perp.
    I’m thinking a sort of reverse class-action civil suit against the entire nation.
    Is this lawyerly viable?

  22. Um…what Ron said also.

  23. Unless Ron was being sarcastic. Then not.

  24. The same thing (chopper crash) could have happened covering a bad accident on the highway. I hope this doesn’t set precedent for more idiotic cases.

  25. jimmy, you know as well as i do that we are forever marching towards greater and greater acts of idiocy.

  26. I stubbed my toe rushing to the TV to see the video of the crash of the choppers who were rushing to see the truck being chased by the cops. It hurts a lot. Who can I sue?

  27. “I stubbed my toe rushing to the TV to see the video of the crash of the choppers who were rushing to see the truck being chased by the cops. It hurts a lot. Who can I sue?”

    1. The furniture manufacturer. There was a reasonable expectation that by putting feet on the furniture that they would be in a proximity to said stubbed toe.

    2. Shoe manufacturers. Had you been wearing shoes the stubbed toe wouldn’t have been stubbed. It is reasonable to assume that a.) you own shoes and b.) if you don’t own shoes the government should provide them. Either way, Nike has oodles of money so to keep them out of the suit is just silly.

    3. The perp. This is a game of “pile-on,” right?

    4. The government. Where were they when the were supposed to to be protectin’ said toe?

    Yes, racing toward idiocy/lunacy at an ever increasing clip.

  28. “I’m thinking a sort of reverse class-action civil suit against the entire nation.”

    Is that you, John Edwards? Welcome to the Internets.

  29. I think it’s hard to draw the line on “close causation” for felony murder cases.

    If someone fleeing the scene of a robbery crashed into a bridge, causing the bridge to collapse and killing people on the bridge, I think that’s felony murder. If some rubbernecker ran over to the bridge to get a better look at the carnage and fell off the bridge, I tend to think that’s NOT felony murder. And that’s what the news copters are – glorified rubberneckers. But that’s just my opinion of the cause and not really a principle. In the absence of a real principle we pretty much have to throw it to the jury, even if you think juries are too bloodthirsty.

  30. I think we mostly agree that this is pretty absurd, but here are a few hypotheticalws:

    1) What if instead of a rubber-necker dying while trying to observe a criminal, somebody dies while trying to flee a criminal? e.g. elderly woman sees thief in house, she runs in other direction (even though he does not pursue), trips, hits her head, and dies. (Yes, head injuries can be fatal.)

    2) What if instead of dying from a head injury she dies from complications during surgery? Assume that the doctor wasn’t incompetent, but rather she was simply very frail and unlikely to survive surgery.

  31. Randolph, it wasn’t the butterfly’s fault that somebody collapsed the wave function.

    Sorry. You told me not to look, but I couldn’t help peeking.

  32. Thoreau –

    I think those are definitely cases of felony murder. Both of them.

    Again, I do not really know how to delineate the principle, but it seems to me that if the action taken by a third party is actually forced upon them by the criminal [such as fleeing] that it should be felony murder – but that if the reason you end up accidentally injuring yourself is your own morbid curiosity, it shouldn’t be felony murder.

    If you’re sitting at home listening to the police band on the radio, get really interested in the chase, and climb up on your roof to jiggle your antenna so you can hear better, I don’t think it should be felony murder if you fall off the roof. If you’re on the roof because a burglar scared you and you ran there to hide, if you fall off I think it SHOULD be felony murder. One seems to me to be an accident that’s the result of your discretionary preference, while the other accident is the result of the criminal act itself.

  33. thoreau: I thought this was going to be a multiple choice exam….

    Seriously, don’t negligent states of mind usually reduce the crime rather than enhance it? Felony murder does two things. (1) It raises negligent homicides to first degree felonies and puts perps in line for life in prison or the DP. (2)It punishes the perp for accidents. Neither comport with traditional rules of mes rea.

  34. but it seems to me that if the action taken by a third party is actually forced upon them by the criminal [such as fleeing] that it should be felony murder – but that if the reason you end up accidentally injuring yourself is your own morbid curiosity, it shouldn’t be felony murder.

    OK, what about a cop driving to the scene of a crime, and getting in an accident along the way? Maybe the criminal didn’t directly force him to go to the crime scene, but the criminal certainly created a situation in which the cop was obligated to show up.

  35. You know, every time an aircraft crashes, I say thank providence for the almighty drug test. It just solves everything and our skies are so much safer for it.

    I’ll bet those pilots that just recently ate it in a ball of fiery death, taking a couple of others along for good measure, had urine that was pure as the driven snow. I love to point out when drug free people are so safe.

  36. So I get an “A”, right?

    How about this: It is a felony to hunt a certain endangered animal. The perp shoots at the animal but misses, hitting and killing a park ranger who is 1/4 mile away and out of sight. Assume hunting is generally legal in the area. Felony murder?

    Let’s say the perp is hunting a similar, but not endangered (and legal to hunt) animal. The perp shoots at what he incorretly thinks is the legal animal three times, and kills one of the endangered animals. The park ranger is killed by one of the shots. Felony murder?

  37. What if how he killed a yak from two hundred yards away?

    With mind bullets!

  38. I guess JPE’s point is that there is presedence, that would be a problem for them.

    The FAA does investigate and place blame. I’m guessing the accident investigation will conclude it was pilot error, not maintaining a safe distance between two aircraft under Visual Flight Rules (VFR).

    It’s a crazy world when someone else can be procecuted after a federal agency puts the blame with someone else.

  39. Isn’t the common law rationale behind the felony murder rule an evidentiary one? I thought the purpose for the rule was that, in a crime with multiple participants where a death results, we don’t have to decide which of the criminals actually fired the fatal shot, clubbed the victim, etc…all of them share equally in the blame.

    This has nothing to do with what the law actually is, but I’d like a regime where the felony 1st degree murder rule only applies from direct intentional acts of the suspect, where the death was an intended result or reasonably likely to occur from the intended act. Deaths indirectly resulting from the acts of the suspect lead to a maximum of criminally negligent homicide. Then in accordance with principles of comparative negligence, we look and see whether the suspect’s actions were more than 50% to blame for the death.

    Did you cold bloodedly ram Grandma’s car into the police, and Grandma died? 1st degree felony murder. Did you deliberately run a red light and recklessly ram into Grandma’s car during a chase? 2nd degree felony murder. Did you drive under some high tension wires while being chased, causing the police chopper chasing you to crash? Possible negligent homicide, depending if you or the police were more responsible for the deaths.

    So, for Lamar’s hypo of the hunter with bad aim, we have an intentional act, but no intention to shoot the ranger. No 1st degree felony murder in GhostLand, but a potential 2nd degree charge, depending if the hunter was reckless in taking the shot. If the hunter was less negligent than the ranger, no murder charge at all. Sound good?

    What is a blog for, if not for self-indulgent navel gazing?

  40. We used to get the KTLA (now KCAL I believe) Channel 5 Ghoul-o-Copter flying over the fires in Griffith Park each fire season. They did an outstanding job of coming in and hovering over areas being mopped up, then did a great job with the rotor-wash of rekindling what had just been put out. It was a hell of a big helicopter because this was the late 50s and broadcast stuff just was not very compact back then.

    I believe it was during the Bel Air fires that the battalion Chief of L.A. County put out the word to the station: get the hell away from the fires, or his men will be ordered to fire on the ‘copter.

    Seeing the destruction we had, I wish it had happened.

    As for the clowns in Texas: the ONLY ones for whom I hold any sympathy are the folks on the ground who might have suffered injury or property damage.

  41. As for the clowns in Texas: the ONLY ones for whom I hold any sympathy are the folks on the ground who might have suffered injury or property damage.

    Hey, don’t blame us! This time it’s Arizona being stupid.

  42. I have to say that helicopter pilots have to know that it is risky to intentionally enter a area where several other helicopters are operating. They did so voluntarily, and had no pressing duty to do so. This is not a case of innocent motorists getting caught up. It’s not even a case of police whose duty it was to respond to a call, as last week’s incident was. This is a group of 4 people who intentionally engaged in risky behavior for their own benefit. In this case, profit, but mere curiosity would also be a benefit that would be morally equivalent.

    I’d say that that their own actions contribute sufficiently to end the criminal liability of the fleeing suspect.

    I have no problem with felony murder for an accident directly caused by a fleeing suspect, such as the motorcyclist mentioned above where the pursuing officer lost control.

    However, I think that there needs to be a zone of causality that comes into play. Common sense, while often being a misnomer, should be a basic guideline. If two news choppers aren’t watching their surroundings and crash, they are responsible due to their own negligence. If they are swerving to avoid shots fired in their direction (for example, the “AK47 bandits” shot at following news helicopters, although no one was hurt) then the perp or perps would have some negligence, because they directly influenced the helicopter’s flight path by shooting.

    But if you go flying into an area crowded with other aircraft, for any but emergency business, then that’s your own damn fault.

  43. “I have no problem with felony murder for an accident directly caused by a fleeing suspect, such as the motorcyclist mentioned above where the pursuing officer lost control.”

    I do. The police are justly compensated for their higher risk career (I’m not talking in absolute numbers here, just that they agree to do a service at a certain price) which includes chasing after bad guys. I don’t see why the fleeing suspect shoulders the blame for the officer’s poor driving skills.

  44. Well, possibly not felony murder, but at least manslaughter. A police crash during a chase that you precipitate is a foreseeable consequence. It’s not just harmless fun to get away from the cops, whatever The Dukes of Hazard may have taught us.

  45. Felony murder, by its definition, always results in punishment for a crime not committed. It satisfies the lust for revenge, and that’s about it. Some say the rule is evidentiary in nature, but that argument means that we’ve done away with the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for every element of the crime.

  46. Suppose there are GOOD consequences that happen in the midst of a felony. Thief breaks into elderly lady’s home, but there was a carbon monoxide leak and by breaking the window, he lets in air, unwittingly saving her life. Does he get a lesser sentence?

  47. I’d almost nominate these bozos for a Darwin award. How stupid does a heliocopter pilot have to get to realize that flying in the vicinity of another heliocopter has a lot of risk associated with it? Add in wind shifts, etc. and you can see why you want to give yourself a lot of free space.

    (And I’m sure that heliocoptors have their own set of no-closer-than-X flight rules that were disobeyed in this circumstance.)

  48. Some amusing car chase coverage mockings from John and Ken here (real audio)

  49. If I’m not mistaken “felony murder” is a fairly old legal doctrine.

    But, when it was originally formulated I’m fairly sure that it was not foreseen that anyone other than the perpetrators or the victims or some bystander (who had some business “bystanding”) would be involved.

    I’m fairly sure noone thought that totally unrelated folks like TV newscrews or officers summoned by radio from afar would be involved.

    Those who wish to correct me, do so, now.

  50. “””felony murder”””

    I think that’s from the department of redundancy department.

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