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Massachusetts court refines felony murder rule

The English common law has given courts in the United States, both local and federal, many doctrines that are routinely applied in criminal and civil cases. One of the oldest and best known of such rules is the felony murder rule. The rule states that anyone who participates in a felony during which a person is killed is guilty of first degree murder. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an opinion in which it prospectively narrowed the definition of a felony murder.

The case in question involved a defendant who assisted in the planning of a robbery but was not present when two victims were shot to death. The defendant supplied a gun and sweatshirts to the burglars. The defendant appealed from his conviction on two counts of first degree murder, arguing that the trial court's application of the felony murder rule to him was overly broad and unfair. The appellate court agreed and announced new standards for application of the rule.

The court characterized the defendant's involvement in the crime as being "on the 'remote outer fringes' of an attempted armed robbery and armed home invasion." The court held that a charge of second-degree murder was more appropriate than first degree murder. First degree murder entails life imprisonment without chance of parole, whereas second degree murder allows for consideration of parole after 15 years of imprisonment. Rather than remanding the case for a new trial, the appellate court reduced the defendant's sentence to two counts of second degree murder.

More importantly, the court ruled that in all future cases involving the felony murder rule, the prosecution must prove that the defendant meets at least one of three elements of malice: an intent to kill, an intent to inflict grievous bodily harm or an intent to act in a manner that creates a plain and strong likelihood that death or serious injury will result. This change in the law will undoubtedly be the subject of more appeals as defense lawyers will attempt to prevent the felony murder rule from being applied in cases where the defendant was not physically present at the crime scene.

Source: MassLive.com, "SJC ruling narrows Massachusetts definition of felony murder," Patrick Johnson, Sep. 20, 2017, accessed on Nov. 11, 2017

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