Intentions are supposed to count for quite a lot in the criminal justice system. The intentions behind an act of violence often make the difference between a charge of manslaughter and murder.
That’s why the felony murder rules used to convict many defendants of homicide are so troubling. Defendants charged under Florida’s felony murder laws are often confused about why they’re facing a murder charge in the first place — because there’s absolutely nothing in the law that requires the defendant to have actually committed murder to be convicted.
What exactly is a felony murder rule?
Felony murder rules are the means prosecutors can use to charge a defendant with murder anytime a death occurs during the commission of another felony. This allows prosecutors to gain murder convictions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Here’s a typical example: During a bank robbery, one of the robbers panics and kills a guard. The robber is charged with murder in addition to the bank robbery — which makes sense.
However, the felony murder rule also allows the prosecutor to charge the getaway driver with murder — even though the driver was outside in a car during the bank robbery and had no knowledge that a guard was killed until later. To win a conviction on the murder charge, all the prosecutor must do is show that the getaway driver was guilty of participating in the bank robbery — even though the driver never intended for anyone to get killed, never anticipated it happening and didn’t actually commit the murder.
In some circumstances, sentences for defendants accused under felony murder rules can be incredibly disproportionate to their actual involvement in a crime. For example, imagine that a teller gave the robbers some inside information about when a large deposit was arriving at the bank. That information allowed them to plan the robbery for a specific time to maximize their take. The teller had been assured that the weapons the robber intended to use were fake and was just as shocked as everyone else when the guard was killed. That teller could still be charged under the felony murder rule and sentenced to life in prison.
Anyone charged under felony murder rules faces a significant legal battle ahead. It’s important to consult a criminal defense attorney right away in order to understand your rights and know how to protect them.