The Felony Murder Rule
The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine that exists in the majority of states in America. Though there is some degree of variation in terms of how it is applied, a significant number of states use the law to allow prosecutors to hold any and all participants in a crime equally accountable. This is problematic for many reasons. First, not everyone involved in a crime is equally responsible. In theory this sounds like a good idea, but as you learn more about this law you will see why it is not. There are degrees of involvement and guilt that must always be taken into account if a justice system is to impose a truly fair sentence. In some situations equal responsibility for a murder that occurs during the commission of a crime is reasonable. However, in many situation, it is not. Ryan’s case is a clear example of how this law is and can be abused.
Second, states like Florida invoke harsh penalties when a person is convicted of felony murder. The mandatory sentence in Florida is either the death penalty or life without any possibility of parole. That’s right, in some states a person may be executed for his or her involvement (or lack thereof in some cases) in a felony that results in a murder. The person may have no knowledge a murder was going to occur and may have had no direct involvement in the murder, but if he or she can be tied to the commission of the felony itself (burglary, aggravated assault, etc.) they can be charged and convicted of felony murder.
You might ask why a jury would convict a person of felony murder if his or her involvement was so minimal that they were not even at the location when the felony and/or murder occurred. The answer is simple: the jury has no choice. When a person is charged with and tried for felony murder it means the prosecution only needs to prove the person’s involvement with the felony aspect of the crime. The prosecution does not need to prove the person committed the murder themselves, or that the murder was premeditated. The prosecution only needs to prove that A) the person was involved in the felony in some way (take for instance Ryan loaning his car to a friend who wanted to steal weed and money from a local dealer), B) the felony resulted in the death of another person.
The jury is rarely told that the finding of felony murder will result in an extreme sentence, such as life without parole. In fact, in some cases jurors have later claimed they were under the impression the sentence would be minimal. They were wrong and it is just another reason why this law is unjust.
The felony murder rule is an outdated common law doctrine. Read more about this law here. Please note that in some states, like Texas, the law is referred to as the law of parties. The felony murder rule and the law of parties are the same doctrine, referred to by different names.
The felony murder doctrine is unnecessary because the law allows prosecutors to individually charge people who are involved in a crime. The felony murder rule only serves to allow prosecutors to overcharge people who are alleged to have been involved in a crime. Sometimes people are charged with or convicted of felony murder wrongfully – in that they were accused of being involved in a crime, but they actually had no involvement at all. As you can see the line becomes blurred very easily with laws like this.
The felony murder rule is unconstitutional and it needs to be abolished throughout all of the United States.
More about the Law
Click here to read more about the felony murder rule and how it has resulted in unjust sentences and convictions in the past.
Click here to read more about why this law needs to be eliminated completely.
Rulings regarding the Law
Ruling regarding felony murder in Michigan (People v. Aaron). Opinion maintained that “we should not view as muder, the one who commits a robbery and then accidently makes the killing”.
More information about the felony murder rule and the state of Michigan (where it was eliminated).
Documentaries and Videos about the Law
Reckless Indifference: Documentary detailing the conviction and sentencing of teenagers in California, including Brandon Hein, under the felony murder rule. A site for Brandon Hein may be found here. He received a life without parole sentence. Others involved and discussed on the documentary include Jason Holland, Micah Holland, Tony Milotti, and Chris Velardo. The documentary is available through Netflix (streaming video).
Unequal Justice: Documentary discussing the conviction and sentencing of Joseph Donovan and Shon McHugh. The documentary is available online here.
The PBS documentary When Kids Get Life details the felony murder convictions of Trevor Jones and Andrew Medina. Both of these are separate cases. The site states that a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch estimates “that 26 percent of juveniles offenders sentenced to life without parole nationwide were convicted of felony murder.
Help fight this unfair law
Please sign the petitions located on the right side of this page to help Ryan, and also to help abolish the law.