The Felony-Murder Rule

The felony-murder rule holds that a person commits murder if he 1) commits or attempts to commit a felony other than manslaughter; 2) in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from it; 3) commits or attempts to commit an act that is clearly dangerous to human life; 4) causing the death of an individual.

A Hypothetical Felony-Murder Case

Let’s pick a felony: Possession of Less than a Gram of Cocaine. You’re about to buy a couple rocks of cocaine in Downtown Houston when (attempt to commit a felony) the cops jump out on you. Because this is your first time to try to buy cocaine and you’ve never been in trouble with the law, you’re terrified of being arrested. So you run (immediate flight) into traffic on Main Street (clearly dangerous to human life). A car driver swerves to avoid hitting you, striking a motorcyclist instead and pushing it into the path of a Metrorail train. The motorcyclist and her passenger die of their injuries at Ben Taub Hospital (causing the death of two individuals).

You didn’t mean to kill anyone. You didn’t want anyone to die. You didn’t know anyone was going to die. You didn’t expect anyone to die. That someone might die didn’t even occur to you. Your underlying crime (attempted cocaine possession) was a misdemeanor. Yet you’re facing five years to life in prison for murder. Actually, it’s worse than that: You committed two felony murders during the same criminal transaction. That makes your crime a capital felony. So you’re facing life without parole. If the prosecutor seeks the death penalty (unlikely in Harris County on these facts, but imagine this happening somewhere like Smith County) the jury probably won’t sentence you to death, but it could, and to avoid any possibility of that you might plead guilty to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

A Harsh Application of the Felony-Murder Rule

This is harsh. It is also, admittedly, an extreme application of the felony-murder rule — most felony-murder cases involve the commission of more serious felonies than the possession of less than a gram of cocaine. But a law should be judged by its most extreme applications because history has taught us time and again that if the government can apply a law harshly it will.

A more typical felony-murder case is that of someone running from the cops in a car (felony) having an accident (clearly dangerous to human life) and killing someone (causing death). Even that is a harsh application of the felony-murder rule — it should be the prototypical manslaughter (recklessly causing the death of an individual).

Facing Felony-Murder Charges

Facing murder charges is never fun. Facing murder charges when you had no idea that anyone might die as a result of your conduct is downright terrifying. If you or a loved one find themselves in this position, call Bennett & Bennett at 713.224.1747 now.