Dissecting The Felony Murder Rule and The Mentally Ill Defendant

Nadine Mathieu
I.                    Introduction

            Imagine being told that if you did not participate in a felony, you or one of your family members would be killed.  Should you participate in the felony due to the threat of being harmed?  In the following scenario, imagine being intimidated and threatened into being the getaway driver for a group of individuals involved in an armed bank robbery.  One of those individuals then shot and killed a security guard during the commission of the robbery.  Even though the getaway driver was coerced into participating in the robbery and did not know or have the intention to cause a death, the driver would also be held liable for the murder of the security guard under the felony murder rule.  Under the felony murder rule, anyone who commits a homicide during the commission or attempted commission of a felony would be found guilty of murder regardless of whether the person was coerced into participating in the felony.[i]  This doctrine is not only limited to those deaths that are foreseeable.[ii]  The felony murder doctrine also applies to unforeseeable and unexpected deaths because the felon is held strictly liable for all killings committed during the course of the felony.[iii]

         Due to the fact that anyone, regardless of whether the person was the primary actor or just an accomplice, can be found guilty of murder if a homicide is committed during a felony, the felony murder rule is often heavily criticized.[iv]  What if the defendant was mentally ill at the time the felony was committed and could not distinguish between right and wrong?  This article will analyze the felony murder doctrine in Florida and how it effects mentally ill defendants and defendants who plea affirmative defenses such as insanity and duress. 

II.                  Defining the Felony Murder Doctrine

        Under common law, the felony murder doctrine establishes that anyone who commits a homicide during the commission or attempted commission of a felony would be found guilty of murder.[v]  The felony murder rule is one of the most controversial doctrines in the United States justice system because a felony murder conviction does not carry the same mens rea requirement as a murder conviction.[vi]  For a murder conviction, the prosecution must prove that the defendant carried the necessary mens rea, or actual intent, to kill another human being and that the killing was premeditated, deliberate, or was caused by gross negligence.[vii]  However, for a felony murder conviction, the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant had the actual intent to kill another human being.[viii]  The prosecution only needs to prove that the defendant carried the necessary mens rea to commit the felony and that the criminal act caused the death of another.[ix]  Therefore, the defendant will be found guilty of felony murder regardless of whether he or she had the actual intent to kill another human being.[x]    

III.       The Felony Murder Rule’s Effect on Juvenile Defendants—A Comparison

            Considering the fact that one of the main concerns of the felony murder rule and why the doctrine is so controversial is because the required element of proving criminal intent is not necessary,[xi] it is particularly clear that this doctrine should not be applied to juvenile defendants.  Instead, juveniles should be charged for their crimes within the juvenile justice system.  Based on the infancy defense, it is presumed that juveniles between the ages of seven and fourteen are unable to form the necessary criminal intent required for criminal culpability.[xii]  “The common law infancy defense can be stated as ‘children under the age of seven are conclusively presumed to be without criminal capacity, [while] those who have reached the age of fourteen are treated as fully responsible, . . . those between the ages of seven and fourteen [are given] a rebuttable presumption of criminal incapacity.’”[xiii]  This defense demonstrates the law’s “unwillingness to punish those thought to be incapable of forming criminal intent.”[xiv]

         Additionally, the felony murder rule should not be applied to juvenile defendants because longstanding developmental and psychological research has proven that juveniles under the age of fourteen lack the cognitive capacity necessary to complete these crimes,[xv] which is similar to mentally ill defendants who lack the cognitive capacity to commit some of their crimes.  Proven research studies have established that children under the age of fifteen are more susceptible to coercion and influence such as peer pressure, are more impulsive, and are less equipped to realizing the future consequences of their actions than adults.[xvi]  Research also shows that juveniles react differently and go through different decision-making processes than adults.[xvii]  The inability to control certain impulses and the psychological disadvantages compared to that of an adult, makes the felony murder rule particularly unfair to apply to juveniles—especially when it comes to unintentional crimes.

IV.       Conclusion
            Aside from the fact that England fundamentally created the felony murder rule and then later renounced it, the doctrine still thrives throughout the United States today with only a few states abolishing the rule.[xviii]  A petition on Change.org was created in 2014 to eliminate the felony murder rule in Florida and gained 1,599 supporters.[xix]  

            Although a defendant should be held liable for his or her actions and for his or her participation in the underlying felony, holding a defendant liable for murder due to unintended or accidental results goes against the core values of the United States justice system.[xx]  In situations where the death was purely accidental or participation in the underlying felony was coerced, applying the felony murder rule is unjust.  In regards to defendants with mental illnesses, applying the felony murder rule seems particularly unjust because in most cases, the defendant is incapable of controlling his or her actions and cannot distinguish between right and wrong.

                [i].              J. Rafael Rodriguez, Column, Criminal Law: Attempted Felony Murder — An Improbable Legal Fiction Meets Its Demise, 69 Fla. B.J. 63, 63 (1995).
                [ii].              People v. Stamp, 82 Cal. Rptr. 598, 603 (Ct. App. 1969).
                [iii].             Id.
                [iv].             Rodriguez, supra note 1, at 63.
                [v].              Joshua Dressler, Understanding Criminal Law 521 (5th ed. 2009); see also Jennifer DeCook Hatchett, Comment, Kansas Felony Murder:  Agency or Proximate Cause?, 48 U. Kan. L. Rev. 1047, 1047 (2000).
                [vi].             Douglas Van Zanten, Note, Felony Murder, the Merger Limitation, and Legislative Intent in State v. Heemstra:  Deciphering the Proper Role of the Iowa Supreme Court in Interpreting Iowa’s Felony-Murder Statute, 93 Iowa L. Rev. 1565, 1567 (2008).
                [vii].            Id.
                [viii].            Id.
                [ix].             Id.
                [x].              Id.; see also People v. Stamp, 82 Cal. Rptr. 598, 603 (Ct. App. 1969) (stating that a felon is held strictly liable for any and all killings committed by the individual or by an accomplice during the course of the felony).
                [xi].             Van Zanten, supra note 6, at 1567.
                [xii].            Steven A. Drizin & Allison McGowen Keegan, The Aftermath of the Lionel Tate Case: Abolishing the Use of the Felony-Murder Rule When the Defendant Is a Teenager, 28 Nova L. Rev. 507, 529 (2004).
                [xiii].            Id.
                [xiv].            Id.
                [xv].            Id. at 508.  “This research reveals that many pre-adolescents and adolescents are not competent to stand trial, [are] incapable of understanding the legal proceedings against them, and [are] unable to meaningfully assist in their own defense.”  Id. (footnote omitted).
                [xvi].            Id.see also Christie Thompson, Charged with Murder Without Killing Anyone: The Paradox of “Felony Murder” Laws, The Marshall Project, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/09/24/a-person-can-be-charged-with-murder-even-if-they-haven-t-killed-anyone#.qyot4Iv52 (last visited Mar. 18, 2017) (“Felony murder laws are especially controversial when it comes to children because, lawyers and advocates claim, they can be easily manipulated into playing a role in an older offender’s crime.”).
                [xvii].           Drizin & Keegan, supra note 12, at 508.  “[E]merging research from the field of neuroscience, using MRIs and other technologies which scan the brain, suggests that differences in the organic structure and function of the teenage brain extend these disabilities in impulse control and decision-making into the late teens and early twenties.”  Id. at 509.
                [xviii].          Van Zanten, supra note 6, at 1572; see also People v. Aaron, 299 N.W.2d 304, 312 (Mich. 1980) (citing that the felony murder rule has been constantly revised and restricted in England, the country of its birth, until it was finally abolished in 1957 by Parliament).
                [xix].            Melissa Higgins, Eliminate Florida’s Felony Murder Rule, Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/eliminate-florida-s-felony-murder-rule, (last visited Mar. 18, 2017).
                [xx].            “While it is understandable that little compassion may be felt for the criminal whose innocent victim dies, this does not justify ignoring the principles underlying our system of criminal law.” Id. at 318.

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