(Note: The Felony Murder Rule provides that when a death occurs during the perpetration of an inherently violent felony, with a felonious intent separate from the killing of the decedent, those culpable will face a charge of first-degree murder.)
I. Should the felony murder rule be abolished? Why or why not?
II. Is there an instance from the media or fiction where the felony murder rule was applied? Did you agree with the outcome?
III. Write your own fact pattern involving the potential for felony murder, and then describe whether you think the rule should apply (and/or whether any other category of homicide would apply), and why.
I. Should the Felony Murder rule be abolished?
The felony murder rule should not be abolished, because the most predictable effect of such an abolition would be a mitigation of punishment for people who commit horrible crimes—or at least who commit terrible crimes with horrible concomitant consequences.
II. Felony murder in the media.
A year or so ago, a white, female reporter lamented that “California’s felony murder rule is . . . predominantly used against people of color, women and young people.” The reporter specifically mentioned the plight of two young black men, each of whom accidentally participated in the death of an innocent person. For their participation, both victims were charged with felony murder and received life in prison without the possibility of parole. I disagree with the outcome, because I do not believe any law or rule can be just if it disparately impacts people of color, women, or young people: for laws to be just, they must mostly effect people without color, men, and old people.
III. Hypothetical fact-pattern involving the potential for Felony Murder.
In 2012, a 6’2″ child was assassinated as he repeatedly slammed a 5’8” Peruvian’s head into concrete. A famous director named Spike Lee, sympathizing with the child-victim on the grounds of skin color, disseminated—widely and publicly—a home address which the director believed belonged to the concussed Peruvian killer. The home rather belonged to someone who simply, by unfortunate coincidence, shared a name with the much-hated Peruvian: George Zimmerman. Nevertheless, one of the director’s many minions, on implicit Twitter-advice of the director, stalked the residence and tortured to death its inhabitants (some old, unrelated man named George Zimmerman and his wife), while screeching, “Justice for Trayvon!”
Did Spike Lee commit Felony Murder when he conspired to disclose the address of an elderly couple who were thereafter tortured to death? Felony Murder arises when someone dies as a proximate result of, and during the perpetration of, an inherently dangerous felony. All of the parties who committed the felony are vicariously liable for that death. No intent to murder is required—only an intent to commit a violent felony other than murder.
Did the death occur during the perpetration of an inherently violent felony? “During the perpetration” means after planning, and during the crime’s commission or attempted commission, or while the perpetrator is in immediate flight from the scene of the crime or attempted crime. The occurred during Director Spike Lee’s perpetration of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Conspiracy to aid and abet murder is an inherently violent felony, and the death did occur during the perpetration of the conspiracy. The “during the perpetration” element is met.
Did the director act with intent? Intent is subjective desire, or substantial certainty, that one’s act or omission will bring about the result in question. Here, intent can be reasonably inferred by the fact that the director publicly disclosed (so he thought) the physical location of a social pariah.
Was there intent to commit an inherently violent felony other than murder? A crime can be committed vicariously when someone causes another to commit the crime. Here, according to much reporting by many news outlets at the time: many unarmed protesters openly called for the murder of George Zimmerman immediately following Trayvon Martin’s ascension into heaven at the hands of his Peruvian assassin. Given the gravity of the injustice that the director believed he was addressing, it can be reasonably inferred that the director intended to incite a physically violent confrontation as a result of the director’s disclosure of the address. Physically violent confrontations that occur as a result of a conspiracy to commit such a confrontation are usually felonies. So there was intent by the director to vicariously commit an inherently violent felony other than murder.
Did the director’s conspiracy occur “during the perpetration” of the crime? Courts have ruled that relevant preparation before a crime, as well as the immediate getaway after the crime, are all part of the crime’s perpetration. The director’s conspiracy occurred as part of the preparation in that it aided in the murderers finding the house where (they thought) that soulful mob-justice could occur. The director’s conspiracy did occur during the crime’s perpetration.
Were the director’s actions a proximate cause of the crime? An action is a proximate cause for a crime when the crime would not have occurred but for the action. Here, because of the director’s conspiracy, a physically violent confrontation did occur. But for the director’s conspiracy, a physically violent confrontation would not have occurred: it was only the director’s communication of the address, and attaching the Peruvian pariah’s name to the address, which caused minions to descend on the address and kill the elderly couple. So the director’s conspiracy was the proximate cause of the torturous home-invasion protest that claimed the lives of the elderly couple in the name of St. Trayvon of Sanford.
Spike Lee did commit Felony Murder when he conspired with murderous protesters to locate the home of an elderly couple—Mr. and Mrs. George Zimmerman—resulting in their violent deaths.
1. Amelia McDonell-Parry, New California Law Could Reduce Hundreds of Felony Murder Sentences (Rolling Stone, 2018), available at https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/california-felony-murder-reduce-hundreds-sentences-731491/