Federal sentencing reform has been slowed in recent months over contentions between conservative and liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups over mens rea reform. Many conservatives and libertarian groups have advocated for strengthening mens rea requirements—or increasing the burden of proof the state must meet when it comes to showing an individual not only committed a crime, but also intended to commit a crime or knew they were breaking the law—at the federal level.
This discussion has, for the most part, ignored another similar area of criminal law: the felony-murder rule. In all murder cases, with the exception of the felony-murder rule, the state has to prove that a person who caused the death of another intended to kill that person or cause serious bodily harm.
In states with a felony-murder rule, a person could be convicted of murder if someone died during the commission of a felony, even if the person did not intend for the death to occur. This rule, while seemingly straightforward, has been applied broadly to cases in which individuals had no knowledge a murder—or even a crime—had occurred. Simply being connected to a felony crime in some way, however small that connection may be, allows the state to charge an individual with murder.
For example, Ryan Holl was convicted of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence for letting his friends borrow his car, which they used to commit a burglary. The burglary turned violent, and one of the men killed 18-year-old girl. Because Ryan Holl lent them the car they used to commit these crimes, he was also charged with first-degree murder.
From The New York Times: "A prosecutor explained the theory to the jury at Mr. Holle's trial in Pensacola in 2004. 'No car, no crime,' said the prosecutor, David Rimmer. 'No car, no consequences. No car, no murder.'"
Here's another example, from Illinois: In 2008, three teenagers broke into a home while two friends waited outside. A person inside the home, surprised by the burglars, shot and killed one of the boys. While the shooter wasn't prosecuted for the killing because he acted in self-defense, two of the teenage boys were charged with first-degree murder. Both boys took a plea deal, in which they pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and burglary, and were both sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Let's look at one more case from Illinois: 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman was shot and killed by Chicago police after he exited a car that was stolen by him and two of his friends. Instead of charging the cop, his friends were each charged with first-degree murder. The prosecutors alleged that the two "set in motion a chain of events that caused the death of Cedrick Chatman," despite being several blocks away from where the shooting occurred. The charges were eventually dropped.
This rule has extended to drug-overdose deaths, specifically related to heroin overdoses, in some states as well. For example, just last week a Virginia man was charged with felony murder after his wife overdosed and died from heroin he supplied.
Kent Scheidegger, the Legal Director and General Counsel of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, explained to The New York Times in 2007 why he believes state felony-murder rules makes sense: "A person who has chosen to commit armed robbery, rape or kidnapping has chosen to do something with a strong possibility of causing the death of an innocent person," Scheidegger said. "That choice makes it morally justified to convict the person of murder when that possibility happens."
But evidence suggests that the felony-murder rule may not have the effects proponents think it should have. According to the findings of 2002 study by Anup Malani, which analyzed state-level data on felonies and felony homicides from 1970-98, the felony-murder rule did not substantially improve crime rates and even increased the number of felony deaths in a state. According to the author, "although the rule reduces the rate of some felonies, this effect is small and can be easily replicated by increasing the penalty for these felonies."
So, not only does the felony-murder rule allow individuals barely connected to a felony crime in which a death occurred to be convicted of first-degree murder, this rule also does not actually serve to reduce crime in states that have it.
If policymakers and advocates want to get serious about reforming the perversions and excesses of our criminal justice system, they should be looking beyond just excessive punishment for nonviolent offenses, but also at statutes that conflict with the basic principles of criminal law: that a person must know that he or she committed a crime in order to be prosecuted for it. Weak mens rea requirements and the felony-murder rule both go against this notion. Any crime that doesn't require the state to prove intent, whether violent or nonviolent in nature, makes it all too easy for prosecutors to stretch charges to absurd lengths.