Law in Contemporary Society

The Injustice of the Felony-Murder Rule

The felony-murder rule allows prosecutors to charge felons with any death that occurs during the commission of a felony, even if the felon had no intent to kill and the victim’s death was completely unforeseeable, by employing the doctrine of transferred intent. Under this doctrine, the malicious intent inherent in the commission of a felony is considered to apply to any killing that occurs as a result thereof. The prosecutor need not establish the defendant’s mens rea that is otherwise required for a murder conviction. While the application of this rule may not be problematic in some instances, its effective disposal of the culpability requirement for murder is nothing more than a legal trick designed to perpetuate injustice by making it easier for prosecutors to put people behind bars. Accordingly, the felony-murder rule should be abandoned.

The California case People v. Stamp illustrates the injustice of the felony-murder rule. In Stamp, the defendant burglarized the business premises of an obese sixty-year-old man with a history of heart disease. During the robbery, the victim was ordered to lie on the floor until the defendant fled. The fright was a shock to the victim’s system and he died of a heart attack. The defendant was convicted of murder under the felony-murder doctrine, despite the fact that the victim’s death was completely unforeseeable and the defendant had no intent to kill the victim.

Although the defendant’s actions in Stamp resulted in the death of the victim and Stamp’s actions were harmful to society, the case was wrongly decided. The court should not have employed the doctrine of transferred intent to convict the defendant of murder simply because murder and burglary are distinct crimes with different levels of depravity. Just because one intends to commit a burglary does not mean he or she has the mens rea for murder. This legal fiction obliterates the distinction between murder and burglary, two very distinct crimes that would never ordinarily be confused.

In cases where a killing was a foreseeable consequence of the commission of a felony, the felony-murder doctrine does not appear to work injustice. For instance, where a defendant uses a gun in the commission of a burglary or knows that an accomplice is armed and the possibility of homicide is foreseeable, there does not seem to be anything unjust about holding the felon responsible for murder. However, proponents of the felony-murder rule fail to recognize that such a defendant would undoubtedly be convicted of murder (or at least manslaughter) with or without the felony-murder rule. Under the Model Penal Code, for instance, which recommended eliminating the felony-murder rule, murder would be established by showing that the defendant acted recklessly under circumstances and manifested extreme indifference to the value of human life. In these instances, therefore, the felony-murder rule is merely a tool to make it easier for the prosecution to secure a conviction. While this may come in handy for these types of cases, it works grave injustice when the rule is applied to cases where the defendant could not have foreseen a killing.

Proponents of the felony-murder rule justify its use based on the theory that it will deter potential felons from committing crimes, or at least from bringing guns or other dangerous weapons to crime scenes. But it is hard to see how the rule deters. First, it assumes that people are aware of the felony-murder rule, which is unlikely to be the case in many circumstances based on how counter-intuitive it is. However, even if one is aware of the rule, its very nature is to punish people for the unforeseeable consequences of their actions. It makes felons strictly liable for murder. While a lack of foreseeability might not bar a civil suit for monetary damages, it should be a material consideration in a criminal suit that seeks to take away a person’s liberty, as one’s liberty should not be taken away unless he or she has the requisite culpability for the specific crime intended.

The doctrine of transferred intent is a cute legal concept that serves society’s perpetual need to put many of its citizens behind bars in order to feel more secure. Although the felony-murder rule itself is only responsible for a miniscule percentage of the people serving prison sentences today, it is an embodiment of the attitude that the American criminal justice system employs to incarcerate the highest proportion of its citizens in the world. But would it really be so bad if we didn’t lock everyone up? Although people may feel safe knowing that the criminal law punishes bad behavior so strictly, the fact that it imposes such harsh penalties should be more troublesome because it means that no one is safe—anyone can be taken by the system at any moment. Although the felony-murder rule is a convenient way for society to distinguish the “us” from the “them,” it is completely unjust and ultimately does more harm than good.


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r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:23:38 - IanSullivan
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