When Does the Felony Murder Rule Apply to a Homicide?

felony murder rule

If someone tragically died during an alleged felony you committed, you likely assume you may face manslaughter, negligence, or wrongful death lawsuits. Those all seem to logically fit an unintended, accidental fatality tied to your actions.

But in Texas, the controversial legal doctrine called “the felony murder rule” means the state can go beyond those expected charges to accuse you of outright first-degree murder. Even if you never planned for nor desired anyone to get killed.

I know it sounds unbelievable. How can you murder someone without meaning to? How can it be the same charge as cold-blooded, premeditated homicide? Yet, under certain circumstances, unintentionally causing loss of life while committing a dangerous felony opens the door for prosecutors to wield murder charges.

What is the Felony Murder Rule?

In essence, the “felony murder rule” lets prosecutors file a murder charge if someone is killed in the course of “inherently dangerous” illegal acts like robbery, burglary, kidnapping, sexual assault, or felony DWI.

The key legal theory is that committing life-threatening felonies shows such disregard for human safety that it transfers intent for any deaths that occur to the perpetrator. So, even accidental or unplanned killings can equal murder under this approach.

In Texas, felony murder is covered under Section 19.02(b)(3) of the Texas Penal Code. It’s defined as murder as occurring when a person:

commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.

The exception is if that act amounts to simple manslaughter. Then, felony murder cannot apply.

Some Examples of How Felony Murder is Applied

That may still sound confusing in the abstract.

So let’s walk through some real-case examples that illustrate how the felony murder rule allows unpremeditated homicides during dangerous crimes to become first-degree murder charges:

  • A getaway driver flees police after an armed bank robbery at high speeds, crashing into another car and killing its driver. Prosecutors charge felony murder by claiming the dangerous act of reckless driving during the robbery felony led directly to vehicular homicide.
  • While committing residential burglary, a startled burglar unintentionally discharges his gun, accidentally shooting and killing a homeowner who confronted him. The unintended killing happens while committing another felony, allowing a felony murder charge.
  • A drug dealer provides heroin to a customer who then dies of an overdose. By committing the felony narcotics crime, they open themselves to a murder charge under the felony murder rule due to the clear dangers of distribution leading to lethal overdoses.

As you can see, the scenarios differ radically, but the core legal concept remains consolidating around a murder charge stemming from an unintentional killing tied to simultaneous felonious activity.

When Would Felony Murder NOT Apply?

However, there are limitations and exceptions where felony murder would not apply despite a death occurring in the midst of criminal conduct:

  • If the felony committed was manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide in the first place. For example, hunting deaths through reckless discharge of a gun may be involuntary manslaughter but could not also trigger felony murder.
  • The death must have a clear causal and temporal relationship to the underlying felony. If a burglar robs a home on Monday and the stressed homeowner later has a fatal heart attack on Thursday, the indirect connection would likely prevent a felony murder charge.
  • The felony must be classified as “inherently dangerous” with a high statistical probability of causing loss of life. For example, felony murder likely does not apply to non-violent crimes like theft or possession charges.

When Does Felony Murder Become a Capital Offense?

If the unintended killing occurs alongside crimes like arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or sexual assault, felony murder can potentially be elevated to a capital offense. That makes the convicted eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Act Fast When Facing Felony Murder Accusations

The bottom line is that Texas has one of the broadest felony murder laws in the country, aggressively leveraged by prosecutors in unintended homicide cases traced to dangerous felony activities.

The scary reality is it can truly mean facing life behind bars or lethal injection for a death you did not consciously plan on or desire. If you face criminal allegations, having an experienced defense attorney conducting an exhaustive review of the facts against you is imperative.

We can assess if the felony murder rule could come into play and immediately build the strongest defense possible, either refuting unrealistic causation claims or invalidating elements that make the rule apply.

Your future hangs in the balance, so act now by calling for a case consultation. We’re here to help.

Author Bio

James P. Whalen

James P. Whalen is the managing attorney and founder of Whalen Law Office, a Texas criminal defense firm offering personalized legal representation for various federal criminal charges. With a commitment to providing comfort and guidance during challenging times, Mr. Whalen serves as both an attorney and counselor to his clients, helping them navigate their cases while striving to restore normalcy to their lives.

In an inherently unbalanced criminal justice system, Mr. Whalen takes on cases with unwavering dedication. With decades of legal experience, he offers representation across various criminal charges, including white-collar crimes, violent crimes, drug charges, and more. Mr. Whalen’s numerous accolades, including Super Lawyer recognition and board certification in Criminal Appellate Law and Criminal Law, reflect his unwavering commitment to ethical and high-quality legal representation.

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