Murder is always a felony, so why do we have the term “felony murder”?
It refers to a rule that most states, including Wisconsin, follow. When a person decides to participate in a felony of any kind, they can be charged with murder if someone dies as a result of that felony. The death does not have to be something the person intended or could even foresee.
For example, suppose three young men decide to rob a liquor store with a toy gun. If the store owner mistakes the toy gun for a real one and kills one of the robbers, the store owner would generally not be charged because it was self-defense.
Instead, in many cases, the two surviving robbers could be charged with murder. They committed a felony. It resulted in a death. It doesn’t matter that they clearly didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt, or that they didn’t commit the act that resulted in the death.
The felony murder rule is controversial because it punishes people for crimes that they had no intent to commit. It punishes people for an outcome that they often had no control over.
According to a recent essay in The Appeal, prosecutors are currently considering felony murder charges in regard to the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol in Washington, D.C. Five people are said to have died from the riot, including one of the rioters, who was killed by police.
Some 300 alleged rioters have been identified and charged so far. In theory, all of them could be charged with five counts of felony murder, even though the vast majority of those involved probably had no intention of harming anyone. They could be charged with regard to all five deaths, even though two of them were suicides.
The felony murder rule is used against people of color, youth and women
According to the available research, it appears that the felony murder rule is used much more often against minorities, juveniles and women. For example, a California inmate survey found that 72% of women serving life sentences for murder had not actually committed the homicide.
Felony murder assumes that people are able to predict the possible outcomes of their illegal actions. Yet we know that juveniles are less likely than adults to be able to do this. Nevertheless, juveniles are routinely charged with felony murder in situations where they were essentially bystanders.
Illinois has just passed a law that limits the application of the felony murder rule. California has limited felony murder to people who were “major participants” in the underlying crime. It’s time for other states to rein in this troubling rule.