I’d like to share my answer from my thesis in Criminal law. This is an interesting topic.
Characteristically, to be guilty of murder, a strong mens rea requirement, such as knowing that what you are doing will result in the victim’s death, must be satisfied. As explained in class, according to the Felony Murder Rule, “any death resulting from the commission or attempted commission of a felony is murder.” So if the victim dies as a “side-effect” of the commission of a felony, then the defendant is guilty not only of the felony, but also of murder, even if the defendant does not satisfy the mens rea usually required before imposing such severe criminal liability.
The felony murder rule states that any death which occurs during the commission, or attempted commission of a felony is considered first degree murder. Anyone involved in the felony can, under this rule, be charged with the crime, regardless of their intent.
I believe the felony murder rule fails to live up to any fair and just standard of jurisprudence. The law, in my opinion, serves no conceivable purpose in the dispensation of justice. For this reason, I believe there is no reason why the felony murder rule should be a part of the criminal code.
The first manner in which the felony murder rule fails is in its application to a crime. Murder, as a function of the criminal justice system, occupies a specific place within the statutes. First degree murder, which is what felony murder is considered, has a very specific standard which must be met by the prosecutors in order to be proven. First degree murder is distinguished by two main factors; it must be premeditated, and it must be intentional. In order to prove first degree murder, prosecutors must show that a defendant entered into a situation with the intention of killing the victim, and that this killing was planned ahead of time. If a defendant did not plan to kill the victim, the murder is considered second degree. If the murder was unintentional, it is generally considered some form of manslaughter.
These distinctions are not arbitrary. We, as a society, have recognized that there are many circumstances which may result in the death of a person. We have further recognized that a killing which is planned and intentional occupies a specific place within our society. It is particularly heinous, and such acts pose a great threat to our social fabric. We have, as a result, distinguished it from all other forms of killing. Because of the nature of the offense, we have imposed particularly harsh penalties on this act, sometimes including death. Because we hold the rights of the defendant to a fair hearing before imposing such penalties, the burden of proof is quite high. It is the only way to ensure a fair and just result.
Felony murder requires no such distinctions, and therefore no such burden. Prosecutors must only prove that a felony was committed, and that a person died as a result of that felony. The defendant need not have entered into the situation with any intention of taking a life. Indeed, the defendant may have, at no time, intended to take the life of another person, and yet be judged guilt of felony murder in a court of law. As I have stated above, we have, as a society, very real reasons for imposing harsh sentences on the crime of first degree murder. Felony murder is an unfortunate event, and we are right to respond in horror. Yet, it does not meet the standards of first degree murder. It does not require nearly the same levels of malicious indifference to the sanctity of life. It should not, therefore, be judged as the same manner of crime.
The felony murder rule also fails to meet the standards for our most fundamental reasons for punishing a crime. The first reason we have is, essentially, punishment for punishment’s sake. The retributivist model of punishment views the purpose of punishment to correct a wrong done to society. Yet, this theory clearly states that a person must be “morally blameworthy” in order to deserve such a punishment. In order for one to be morally blameworthy, one must make a conscious decision to commit an act. Such is not the case in felony murder. One can be punished for an action without having made such a decision at any time. Some would argue the decision was to commit the original felonious act, yet that argument is simplistic and overly convenient. It is true that an offender made the decision to engage in an activity that he or she knew could conceivably result in a death. Yet, this could arguably be the case in any event that results in a person’s death. Any time we get behind the wheel of a car, there is the possibility we may end up killing another individual. This is true whether or not we are incapacitated or negligent at the time. We are piloting an object that weighs several tons, at varying speeds, in areas that include others. Yet, if a person dies as a result of our driving that car, the decision to drive it does not come into play. The very reason for the distinct statue of manslaughter is that we acknowledge that sometimes things happen, whether we intend them or no.
This is not to say there should be no punishment for the death of an innocent civilian during the commission of a crime. Such acts are not meant to be viewed lightly. However, first degree murder is a very specific charge, requiring a very specific degree of moral culpability. It is considered one of the most severe crimes one can commit, and for good reason. To maintain the integrity of that particular crime, we must only apply it where it is justified. Felony murder does not live up to this standard.
The second consideration when establishing a punishment is its deterrent effect. One of the reasons, arguably, that we impose harsher punishments on first degree murder is that we wish to deter people from willfully going out and killing others. Felony murder absolutely fails on this level as well. It is, by definition, an unintended crime. If a criminal intended to commit a murder, it could be charged as such. A felony murder charge implies that it is the most a prosecutor can reasonably prove. If we, therefore, assume that the defendant had no prior intent to commit murder, the threat of such a charge could not be expected to deter his or her actions. In fact, one could conceivably argue that the felony murder statute could result in more deaths, not less. If a criminal is engaged in a crime, and that act results in the death of one or more people, there is actually an incentive now to kill any witnesses to the crime, as the criminal is already set to be charged with murder in the first. Any incentive to keep other innocent civilians alive would be removed, and the criminal is best served by removing those who could identify him or her.
No one wants to see a situation where people die when confronted by a criminal in the act of engaging in illegal activity. We have an understandable desire to see a criminal who causes the death of an innocent, whether through action or negligence, punished for the result. However, this desire does not justify the current standard of felony murder. One of the most critical foundations of our justice system is intent, especially when the crime in question is murder. Intent is what distinguishes murder from manslaughter, first degree from second. We take into careful consideration the mindset of the defendant, because we know this has a very real bearing on the severity of the crime. At least, this is true in any case other than felony murder. In such a case, the mindset of the defendant means nothing. It violates our foundational understanding of what it takes to define an act as murder. It violates a defendant’s right to a trial that reflects the act that the defendant is believed to have committed. The removal of this law does not mean that an offender would get off with no punishment for such a crime. It only means that the defendant would face a punishment more closely aligned with the actual nature of the crime.