Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A weird version of murder - one I rarely see

"Felony murder."

At first it sounds silly - of course murder is a felony!

But that's not what it means. No, it means that when someone gets killed during the commission of a felony, their death is treated as a murder.

The classic example is a robber who holds up a bank, and while he's waiting for his bag of cash the gun goes off, but accidentally. He didn't mean to shoot the teller, so normally it might be chalked up as an accident. But because he was in the middle of committing a felony, it's murder. Ergo, felony murder.

More recently, some jurisdictions have applied the felony murder rule to deaths caused by drunk drivers. Remember that (in Texas) your third DWI offense is a felony, so if you get in an accident and kill someone, you now run the risk of being charged with felony murder.

Here's an unusual, real life example: a man burgles someone's house and steals a stove. He fails to secure the stove on the back of his vehicle, and 60 miles down the road it falls off and kills a motorist. Felony murder.

Harsh? Not for me to say, but the appellate court didn't think so.

The unusual facts caught my eye, and got me thinking: in my three years prosecuting felonies, I've never seen a felony murder case. Maybe one has been through the office and I haven't noticed, but I know I've not handled one myself.

I guess that's a good thing, right? Obviously, the fewer murders the better in general but there's something about the usually random nature of felony murders that I don't like. The double tragdey of an unnecessary death coupled with the "accidental" nature that subjects the defendant to a much stiffer penalty. Of course, depending on the facts, one's sympathies can be powerfully tempered; if your cyanide-poison hand grenade accidentally goes off while you are mugging a 90-year-old nun for the cash she was about to give to the orphanage, well, let's just say we suddenly see that value of the felony murder rule.

So, please, next time you're out mugging nuns, leave the military ordinance at home. And leave Sister Kildare with a little for the poor box. It's just common decency.

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