Sentencing Reform

The Felony-Murder Rule Sends Non-Killers to Prison and Doesn't Even Reduce Crime

These flawed laws need to be reformed.

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prison
Credit: seantoyer / photo on flickr

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 Holle 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 Holle 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.

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  1. Can you prove this didn’t save even one life? cuz that would make it all worth it.

  2. Fucking mens rea, how does it work?

    1. The mens rea for the underlying felony is transferred to the resulting murder that was the foreseeable result of that felony. You might disagree with that policy, but it’s not as if it’s illogical.

  3. 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.”

    Who the fuck cares? Goddamn utilitarian view of criminal law.

    1. I don’t like some of the ways the felony murder and misdemeanor manslaughter rules work. It is a bit ridiculous to charge accomplices with felony murder when one of them is killed during the crime. It is also ridiculous to charge someone who could not be charged with the underlying felony with felony murder. That said, criminal sentencing is not just about deterrence.

      Part of the traditional understanding of the social compact is that we expect justice from the courts in exchange for giving up our right to private vengeance. Private vengeance leads to feuds, large numbers of wrongful killings, and certain persons being beyond the reach of justice It is the hope of this compact that courts will be more even handed, but they must actually PUNISH the guilty for this to work. Criminal law is retributive, and it should remain so.

      This is one of the strongest reasons victimless crimes have no place in a free society. Criminal laws are retributive, no victim, no right to retribution.

      1. Good thing we don’t have “certain persons being beyond the reach of justice “. *cough* Hillary *cough*

        1. Yeah, well Government is very good at screwing up its side of the social compact.

      2. Imaginary “victims” give anti-choice fanatics an excuse and prohibitionists legal power to commit any number of murders with absolute impunity. The way mysticism detaches from reality to blur the distinction between murder and “the free exercise thereof” is a major problem with methodists and mohammedans alike.

        1. Oh look, it’s Hank the infanticide troll.

        2. Now you’re just blaming the “methodists” for all the world’s evils instead of all Christians! What did a “methodist” ever do to you?

      3. But is it not possible that in the absence of law, people would also take it on themselves to commit violence against people who behave in victimless ways they don’t approve of?

    2. these sorts of justifications plague our political system. take a look at the justification for a nativist immigration policy for a currently well-circulated example of how consequentialism trumps principle.

      Pointing out that the consequentialist justification for tyranny fails in service of human rights shouldnt be viewed as a nuisance. We live in an age where few have anything even remotely resembling a consistent appreciation for the rule of law. If its possible to convince authoritarians that the drug war should end because we cant afford the prisons, for example, Id say its worth making the point.

      1. Totalitarians do not share your premises, so additional arguments must be advanced to cause them to see what–by their lights–passes for reason. After Herbert Hoover’s jackbooted dry minions had completely destroyed US securities markets, tax revenues and banks, additional steep tax hikes caused even those blinded by faith and willing to exterminate entire populations of sinners, to experience an unpleasant sensation in their wallets.

    3. Is there any justif’n for the entire body or concept of criminal law that’s not utilitarian?

  4. Felony murder in the original form and spirit makes sense: commit a violent act with a group and all members of the group are liable for a resulting death.

    Are you robbing a bank with six other people and a guard gets shot and dies? Everyone, not just the trigger man, is chargeable. I think most people can agree with the spirit of this.

    The problem is actually, and as is usually the case with BS that comes from court room convictions, that the statutes were written too broadly. This gives any government attorney enough latitude to bolster their political aspirations by putting people away for running a red light, hitting someone, and then charging the two 12 year olds in the back seat. (Because: Tough on crime.) You also see this with things like hate crime laws.

    Instead of advocating for legislation like this to be fixed rolled back in a piecemeal fashion, why don’t we advocate both for mens rea and requiring specifics in the laws passed? Get rid of anything that’s a blanket or rider to existing crimes.

    1. All indications are that the courts disagree. If you and a half-dozen other state troopers are stomping some good sense into a bunch of uppity protestors, and a couple of them up and die in the process, no way are you and your buddies going to get anything but paid leave out of the deal–and that only if some troublemaker escaped with a video of the performance. To judges convinced that robbery is in fact asset-forfeiture if the perp is in uniform, then logical consistency demands the same interpretation for collusion in acts of murder.

    2. Actually, I don’t agree that if you and six other guys rob a bank and one of you shoots a guy that all of you should be prosecuted for the murder. Only one of them actually killed someone. Or are we saying that it isn’t the action of killing a person that should be punished? Bank robbery and murder are, I would suppose, different crimes for a reason.

      1. Now, if you can prove that all six of them conspired to murder that bank guard then by all means charge them all except the shooter with conspiracy to commit murder.

      2. No, all of you agreed to an armed robbery. The threat of death is inherent in that. If someone dies, regardless of the exact mechanism, you agreed to it.

        The burglary case (where a homeowner defending himself killed a bystander by accident) is harder: the burglars can argue that the crime they intended to commit posed no threat to persons.

        The lending-a-car case was just stupid.

        1. Agreed, if you knew your accomplices were armed, you should reasonably expect that the victim might defend himself with deadly force, and that shit will go sideways.

        2. While it might be a reasonable expectation that someone will be shot in said situation, it’s also a reasonable expectation that people will not let you steal their things without the threat of violence even if you personally don’t expect to need to follow through on the threat.

          The thing I really don’t like about a law like this one is that it means, conceivably, that you could go to a rally and if violence occurs and someone dies, you are now charged with that murder along with 50 other people. I’m not saying that’s already happened, but it opens the door to that kind of abuse.

          Of course, I’m sure law enforcement would never do anything like that. A prosecutor would never go for it, and even if they did a judge and jury wouldn’t support it either. Never mind the evidence that it would appear they’ve already contorted this statue into something I wager no one thought it would be used for.

    3. How does the guilt multiply to cover the # of people involved to the same degree as if it were a single person? In tort law the liability would be divided among those responsible, proportionally. So how is it that in criminal law, even though the damages are the same, somehow it’s as if everyone involved produced an equal amount of damage? So if 100 people are equally responsible for a death in tort law, they’d each pay 1%, but in criminal law they each pay 100%? Then it’s as if each of them went out & killed somebody, resulting in 100 deaths! Where’s the sense in that?

      1. Dividing liability would lead to some pretty perverse results. One hundred people want someone dead? No big deal. Mob the guy, serve a few months each, go on with your life. Find a thousand like-minded murderers and you could get it down to a couple of weeks each.

    4. Lets put it in math.
      X Belongs to group Y.
      X commits a murder.

      Does that mean that the whole group Y commited a murder? No. Thereof your reasoning is unlogical.

      Examples of your logic:

      When a policeman murders a person, should the whole department be placed in jail.?

      Should we place in jail all government officials because they belong to a group which does have a great number of members involved in corruption?

      Should a woman be placed in jail because her son commited a murder? If she had aborted the son (a murder on her own) then her son would not be able to commit a murder.

      Should all americans be tried for murder because some americans commited murder?

      I hope I made clear that your statement and the law is ridiculous. Emotion is not justice. A passing grade in logic should be one of the requirements to all that write law.

  5. I don’t necessarily disagree with the felony-murder rule, but as with all things criminal justice, prosecutors apply it too broadly. Abuse it, you lose it.

  6. I am trying to envision or recall an instance of one cop beating a man to death while several others hold him down, where the beater OR the holders were named in a murder indictment –and all I get is a blank screen. Flickering images of not guilty findings in the Rodney King, Eric Garner and myriad other uniformed gang murders come to mind. In fact, googling “officer (or trooper) convicted of murder” turns up a couple of wife-killers and partner killers with no accomplices mentioned. In recordings, swarms of asset-forfeiture gunmen appear in films shooting, beating and strangling people to death, but in American court verdicts, only the occasional uxoricide gets so much as a stern reprimand. Am I missing something? Does “person” by definition never mean “policemen with guns” committing felonies?

  7. So what if there isn’t a demonstrable reduction in crime because of felony murder laws? A law is only worth having if it reduces crime? How about having it so that people involved in a crime pay if someone dies in the course of committing that crime?

    1. Never loan your vehicle to anyone. They may commit a crime where some one dies.

      1. That’s the thing. If you follow the link, Holle knew exactly what they were up to:

        “But Mr. Holle did testify that he had been told it might be necessary to ‘knock out’ Jessica Snyder.”

    2. How about having it so that people involved in a crime pay if someone dies in the course of committing that crime?

      That’s stupidly overbroad, and that’s the problem with the felony murder rule. If I’m fudging the numbers on Vinny the Mobster’s tax return, and Vinny ices Johnny the Lackey because he knew something was up, I shouldn’t be charged with murder.

      1. How about you stop fudging tax returns for mobsters? Then you won’t have to worry about it.

      2. It effectively turns every felony into a murder trial as long as someone involved killed someone. Why not just make that the law, if it’s such a good idea?

      3. Whoa! Vinnie would ice Johnny the Lackey, because he knew something was up with his tax return?
        Sounds like you need to stay far away from Vinnie, if that’s all it takes.

  8. The only one of the cases that Krisai cites that bothered me at all was the Ryan Holl case. In all the other cases, the participants were knowingly participating in felonies. But with Holl, it wasn’t clear from this article that he had knowledge of the burglary. However, following the link, I find that he did indicate knowledge of the burglary.

    This type of sentence is fantastically easy to avoid: don’t commit violent felonies or get involved with people who do. That includes knowingly lending your car to burglars.

    1. “But Mr. Holle did testify that he had been told it might be necessary to ‘knock out’ Jessica Snyder.”

      Holle’s a PoS. He was willing to lend his car to men he knew were going to do violence to an innocent woman. Eff him.

  9. One of the worst was the Lisl Auman case. She was literally in policy custody when a man she didn’t know shot and killed a cop. Then she stupidly talked to the police without a lawyer. Because there was a breaking-and-entering involved, they sentenced her to life in prison w/o parole. Only after a huge public campaign (led by Hunter S. Thompson) did they relent to a 20-year plea bargain.

  10. Sorry, but when people take on a felony, they take on the outcome of it. Now, I agree that the loaning of a car without knowing that the borrower was intending to commit a felony is a miscarriage; but that can be corrected in the review and appeal process without obviating the general rule. It may seem slightly draconian but that may be what it takes to deal with the problem of people participating in felonies. As a judge once told me, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

  11. I had no idea that our government was so screwed up in the law enforcement area (sarc)

  12. So, we should just let them go even if they’ve been involved in a felony?
    Might as well just strike all those felony laws from the code.
    And, if we don’t have felonies, why do we bother with misdemeanors – let’s get rid of them too.
    And the infractions too.
    Oh, wait, without any laws at all, we’ll have anarchy as everyone just “does their thing”.
    But I thought libertarians were for “small government”, not “no government”.
    Plus, we can’t rely on things like the Ten Commandments to govern human behavior, because religion is just so judgmental.

  13. What a completely stupid law! Typical American conservatism – anyone who ain’t perfect should be in prison!

    Suppose I am riding in a car with a friend driving. We are on the way to rob a store. Suppose a minor traffic incident – fender-bender – happens and escalates into road-rage and my friend kills the other driver. How could I possibly be guilty of murder just because we were going to commit a felony?

    Seems to me that there is a great wrong with the US criminal justice system and it needs a complete overhaul. Laws like this are similar to those ancient laws which saw people hung for stealing a sheep

    Wake up America and stop being so damned holier-than-thou!

  14. I would argue that, for Felony Murder to apply, the perp should have to be a direct participant in the felony. e.g. 1: The driver of the getaway car in a case that one of his accomplices killed someone. e.g.2: If one of the perps is killed during a felony, his accomplice is guilty of FM.

    The present situation is a classic case of a corrupt prosecutor.

  15. So, it’s the statutory version of the butterfly effect. If only politicians were that sensitive to the cause and effect chain of their shitty policies.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

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  19. RE: The Felony-Murder Rule Sends Non-Killers to Prison and Doesn’t Even Reduce Crime

    Well of course these felony-murder rule sends non-killers to prison and doesn’t even reduce crime.
    But that isn’t the point.
    The point is our socialist slave state can incarcerate more of the little people so the ruling elitist filth can enjoy more freedom, opportunity and money without the unwashed masses getting in their way.

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