The definition of felony murder varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The classic definition, however, states that someone is guilty of murder if another person dies because any other felony, such as burglary, rape, arson, or mayhem, was committed or attempted. It does not matter whether the murder was intended or unforeseeable, if another person dies during the commission of a crime, it is a felonious murder. The reason behind the rule is to deter people from killing others during the commission of a crime. Courts hope someone who commits a felony, such as robbery, will take care not to harm or kill the victim for fear of being sentenced with a first degree murder or capital murder offense, instead of manslaughter.
Felony murder can be seen in many different kinds of criminal law cases. For example, if a person steals an unattended car without using any violence, that person has committed a burglary. If that burglar or one of his accomplices unintentionally kills another person during a high-speed car chase, both the burglar and his accomplice will be prosecuted for a felony murder. The person who was not even driving the car could be sentenced with a first degree murder charge, simply because he committed the burglary and someone died.
Since modern legislatures have generated a wider range of statutory felonies, they have diminished the meaning of the classic definition of a felonious murder. Unjust consequences have required that strict limits be placed on the rule. For example, under the rule, a liquor store clerk would become a murderer if she sold alcohol to a minor and that minor fell asleep in an alleyway on the way home and died of exposure to the cold. Many legislatures have claimed the store clerk should not be prosecuted for a felonious murder. As a result, there are different interpretations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as to what qualifies as a felony murder.
Most courts require that the felony be completely separate from the murder. For example, if a person commits a robbery and the victim dies in the process, the rule may be applied. In the alternative, if a person willfully commits child abuse and the child dies, the rule would not be applied. Courts reason that the rule’s purpose is to deter people from killing others during the commission of a felony. In this example, the act of committing the felony of child abuse caused a child to die, and the abuser could not be deterred from negligently killing the child.
The limitations to the rule vary widely. Other courts require the felony in question to be a felony under common law, such as arson, rape, larceny, burglary, mayhem, or robbery. A few courts claimed the felonious crime must be inherently dangerous before it can be used to classify a homicide as a felony murder. For example, if a person visits a massage therapist and dies of a hemorrhage as a direct result of the therapist’s massage, the massage therapist would not be guilty of felonious murder.
The United States and Australia use the felony murder rule to charge people for first degree murder for a death that would otherwise be considered manslaughter. Many other countries, such as India, England, and Canada have chosen to abolish the rule, claiming it is too strict. Those countries do not believe a person who commits robbery, for example, should be guilty of felony murder, especially if the actual murder was committed by the robber’s accomplice.