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What Is Felony Murder? - Definition, Rule & Doctrine

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  • 0:00 Felony Murder
  • 1:07 Elements of Felony Murder
  • 3:09 Only Certain Felonies
  • 4:03 Policy Goals
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Some states use a felony murder doctrine, which allows a person to be convicted of murder when that person didn't mean to kill, but was committing another felony. This lesson explains the felony murder doctrine.

Felony Murder

Robert and Greg decide to commit a robbery at a local convenience store. They plan for Robert to enter the store and commit the robbery, while Greg stays in the car and serves as the getaway driver. Robert enters the store and pulls a gun on Clark, the store clerk. But things don't go as planned. Clark and Robert struggle. Robert ends up shooting Clark, who later dies.

Are you surprised to learn that both Robert and Greg are charged with murder? Robert only intended to rob the store; he didn't mean to kill Clark. Greg wasn't even in the store. Why is he charged with murder?

Some states have a special law known as the felony murder doctrine. A doctrine is simply a rule, or a principle of law. The felony murder doctrine states that if a person commits a violent felony and another person dies as a result, the criminal can be charged with murder, even if they did not mean for anyone to die or did not directly commit the act. Neither Robert nor Greg meant to kill anyone, and Greg didn't commit the act. However, they both can be charged with murder.

Elements of Felony Murder

Not all states have the felony murder doctrine. Some states have abolished the rule altogether, while others have severely limited the use of the rule. Felony murder is a first degree crime in some states, meaning it's considered to be the most serious type of crime. First degree crimes usually require deliberate planning. Some states classify felony murder as a second degree crime, meaning it's considered to be the second most serious type of crime. Second degree murders often require an intentional killing, but not deliberate planning. Because states vary, this lesson only includes a general look at the doctrine.

In those states that use the felony murder rule, most require a few key elements be met. In legal terms, elements are the factors required by law in order to prove a crime. They elements required by most states when it comes to the felony murder rule include:

  • The death of the victim
  • The offender's intent to commit a dangerous felony
  • The victim's death occurred during the offender's commission of the felony, or while the offender was attempting to commit the felony, or while the offender was immediately fleeing from the felony
  • While in the act of committing the felony, the offender or another participant in the crime caused a chain of events that resulted in the death of the victim

In our earlier scenario, notice that Clark was killed during the attempted robbery, which is considered a dangerous felony. Also notice that Greg and Robert were both attempting to commit the robbery. Therefore, all of the key elements are met.

It's important to note that felony murder doesn't require the intent to kill. In this instance, intent would indicate that an offender meant to kill a victim. Felony murder only requires the intent to commit the felony, as Robert and Greg meant to rob the store. In other words, maybe they didn't intend to kill someone, but they did intend to commit a dangerous felony. That intent is enough to charge you with felony murder. This is known as substituted intent, where the intent to commit the dangerous felony substitutes for the intent to kill.

Only Certain Felonies

It's also worth noting that not all felonies qualify for felony murder. Some felonies, like embezzling large amounts of money, aren't inherently dangerous to another person. States vary in which felonies qualify, though most states include:

  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Sexual assault
  • Kidnapping

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