The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine current in some common law countries that broadens the crime of murder in two ways. First, when a victim dies accidentally or without specific intent in the course of an applicable felony, it increases what might have been manslaughter (or even a simple tort) to murder. Second, it makes any participant in such a felony criminally responsible for any deaths that occur during or in furtherance of that felony. While there is some debate about the original scope of the rule, modern interpretations typically require that the felony be an obviously dangerous one, or one committed in an obviously dangerous manner. For this reason, the felony murder rule is often justified by its supporters as a means of deterring dangerous felonies.
According to most commentators, the common law rule dates to the twelfth century and took its modern form in the eighteenth century . Because the rule requires no intent to kill, or even to do bodily harm, it has been criticized as unjust .
Accordingly, it has been abolished in the United Kingdom. In some jurisdictions (such as Victoria, Australia), the common law felony-murder rule has been abolished but replaced by a similar statutory provision.
Some commentators regard this as a legal fiction whereby the law pretends that the person who intended one wrongful act, also intends all the consequences of that act, however unforeseen. Others regard it as an example of strict liability, whereby a person who chooses to commit a crime is considered absolutely responsible for all the possible consequences of that action. Lord Mustill regards the historical rule as a convergence of these views.
To counter the common law style interpretations of what does and does not merge with murder (and thus what does not and does qualify for felony murder), many jurisdictions in the United States explicitly list what offenses qualify. The American Law Institute's Model Penal Code lists robbery, rape or forcible deviant sexual intercourse, arson, burglary, kidnapping, and felonious escape. Federal law specifies additional crimes, including terrorism and carjacking.
There are two schools of thought concerning whose actions can cause the defendant to be guilty of felony murder. Jurisdictions that hold to the agency theory admit only deaths caused by the agents of the crime. Jurisdictions that use the proximate cause theory include any death, even if caused by a bystander or the police, provided that it meets one of several proximate cause tests to determine if the chain of events between the felony and the death was short enough to have legally caused the death.
Felony murder is typically the same grade of murder as premeditated murder. In many jurisdictions, felony murder is a crime for which the death penalty can be imposed, provided that the defendant himself killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill. For example, three people conspired to commit armed robbery. Two of them went in to the house and committed the robbery, and in the process killed the occupants of the house. The third person sat outside in the getaway car, and he was later convicted of felony murder. But because he himself neither killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill, he cannot be executed even though he is guilty of felony murder.
In the United States, felony murder is generally first-degree murder, and often a capital offense. When the government seeks to impose the death penalty on someone convicted of felony murder, the Eighth Amendment imposes additional limitations on the state's power to do so. The death penalty may not be imposed if the defendant is merely a minor participant and did not actually kill or intend to kill. However, the death penalty may be imposed if the defendant is a major participant in the underlying felony and "exhibits extreme indifference to human life".
Every jurisdiction in the United States incorporates some form of the felony murder rule as part of its definition of murder.
The Doe Gang attempts to rob a bank. John, Jane and Richard Doe will do the actual robbery. Mary Doe will act as lookout, and Joe Schmoe waits around the corner with the getaway vehicle. Mike Meek is a bank employee who is to make sure the alarm is not sounded. The robbery is a violation of both federal and state law, and can separately be prosecuted under each without incurring double jeopardy. Both jurisdictions employ the felony murder rule: for purposes of this example, we assume that federal law employs the proximate cause theory and state law the agency theory.
During the course of the robbery, the Bank Manager suffers an aortic dissection and dies almost instantly. A teller hits the silent alarm in the confusion. The police arrive, and Mary surrenders promptly. When the police enter the bank, John, Jane and Richard open fire: Jane kills an officer while Richard's wild shot kills John. Joe Schmoe hears the shots and flees. He does not see a child playing in front of the car, and accidentally kills her. Later, officers' bullets kill Richard and the teller behind him. The result of all this carnage is as follows:
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