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Felony Murder: Distinctions and Implications

Ben Michael

Felony Murder is a law that allows defendants to be held accountable for a death that happens during the commission—or attempted commission—of a dangerous felony, such as a robbery. The element of intent, which is usually required for a killing to constitute Murder, is not needed in Felony Murder cases.

The application of the Felony Murder rule varies across jurisdictions. Several states have introduced laws that prevent or limit the Felony Murder rule so that it can only be applied to cases where a defendant is directly involved in the death of another person. In most states, however, the Felony Murder rule means that all participants of a dangerous felony or attempted felony (during which another person dies) can be charged with Murder, regardless of whether they were the direct cause of the death or if it occurred accidentally or unintentionally.

In this article, we’ll explore the definition and legal elements of the Felony Murder rule in Texas, the implications of a Felony Murder conviction, and answer some frequently asked questions.

At common law, the Felony Murder rule is applicable when, during the commission or attempted commission of a dangerous felony, another person dies. The foundation of the Felony Murder principle lies in the theory that all participants of an inherently dangerous felony should be culpable for fatalities that happen as a consequence of the participant’s actions—even if:

  • A participant didn’t directly cause the death,
  • The killing was not premeditated,
  • The defendant did not have any intention of causing serious bodily injury or death.

This is different from both Murder and Voluntary Manslaughter, where a defendant cannot be convicted without the element of intent.

Conversely, an “accidental death” resulting from negligence or recklessness under normal circumstances—where the defendant was not partaking in a dangerous felony—would likely result in Manslaughter or Criminally Negligent Homicide in Texas.

For example, three people rob a store and get in their car. As they speed off, they get into a car crash that results in the death of a passenger in the other vehicle. None of the three offenders in this example intended to cause bodily injury or death to another person, and it certainly was not premeditated. However, as robbery is considered a violent felony, all three of the offenders could be charged with Murder under the Felony Murder rule. Depending on state statutes, sometimes a participant who wasn’t even on the scene could be charged with Murder.

As previously mentioned, the Felony Murder rule applies to attempted as well as committed felonies. To use our prior example, if the trio caused the crash (leading to someone’s death) before they even reached the store, subsequently abandoning their plans to commit a felony, they could still be charged with Murder.

On the other hand, if the trio in our example were not intending to commit a crime, but instead were three friends on their way to the grocery store when they got into a road traffic accident ending in a fatality, they probably wouldn’t be charged with Murder. If the driver was found to be culpable for the death through negligence or reckless behavior, however, they (the driver) could face Manslaughter rather than Murder charges.

Some states have brought in laws that limit the Felony Murder rule—especially when the element of intent is lacking. For example, California prevents Felony Murder from applying to a defendant who wasn’t a significant participant in a killing and did not act with intent or malice aforethought.

Elements of Felony Murder

The elements that qualify a crime for the Felony Murder rule differ across jurisdictions. According to the Texas Penal Code § 19.02, a person commits Murder if the 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, the person commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual…”

Below, we take a closer look at each element separately.

Underlying Felony

The fatality occurred during the commission, attempted commission, or immediate flight from the commission or attempt of a felony other than manslaughter. Felonies that qualify for Felony Murder vary across jurisdictions, but they typically include burglary, arson, rape, robbery, and kidnapping. If the crime committed or attempted did not amount to a felony—for example, the offense would usually be classified as a misdemeanor—then the Felony Murder rule cannot apply.

Causation

Another person died as a result of the commission or attempted commission of an “act clearly dangerous to human life.” There must be a causal connection between the underlying felony, the clearly dangerous act, and the resulting fatality. In other words, Felony Murder is only applicable to cases where the deceased individual would still be alive had it not been for the defendant’s actions.

Intent

For a homicide to constitute Murder under typical circumstances, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant acted with the intention to cause death or serious bodily injury. In contrast, the element of intent is not needed for the Felony Murder rule to apply. An individual can be charged with Felony Murder even if they didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt.

Distinctions Between Felony Murder and Other Homicide Offenses

Homicide offenses in Texas are classified based on various factors, such as the defendant’s level of culpability, intent, and knowledge of wrongdoing. In descending order, from the most the different types of homicide offenses in Texas include:

  • Capital Murder
  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Criminally Negligent Homicide

As you can see, Felony Murder is not a type of homicide offense. Instead, it’s a law that allows homicides that occur under certain circumstances to be classified as Murder. Below, we examine the critical legal distinctions between each category.

Capital Murder

Capital Murder is a first-degree felony punishable by life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty. This level of homicide applies to Murder cases that satisfy the elements of Murder, plus additional aggravating factors, such as:

  • The murder of a peace officer
  • The killing of multiple people
  • The intentional killing of another person during the commission of another felony
  • The defendant was employed to carry out the killing or paid someone else to commit the Murder
  • Murder was committed during the escape or attempted escape from a penal institution

Murder

Murder is defined as:

  • Intentionally or knowingly causing the death of another person
  • Intending to cause serious bodily injury and committing an act that’s dangerous to life, resulting in the death of another
  • Committing or attempting to commit a felony, during which the defendant carries out, or attempts to commit, an act clearly dangerous to human life, resulting in the death of another (Felony Murder)

Voluntary Manslaughter is a term used in some places to describe circumstances in which the defendant was adequately provoked into committing the killing in a sudden heat of passion. In Texas, if it is proven that the defendant “caused the death under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause,” then the charges are downgraded to a second-degree felony.

While a “Voluntary Manslaughter” conviction in Texas is still considered “Murder,” the penalties associated with a second-degree felony are not as severe as the punishments handed out for a first-degree felony.  

Manslaughter

Unlike Murder charges, intent does not need to be proven to convict a person of Manslaughter. Instead, Manslaughter is defined as recklessly causing the death of another.

A classic example is Intoxication Manslaughter, where a drunk driver chooses to get behind the wheel, even though they are aware that doing so will cause significant risk to others, and ends up getting into an accident that results in a fatality. Disregarding the risks associated with drunk driving shows reckless behavior.

Criminally Negligent Homicide

Criminally Negligent Homicide in Texas is a State Jail felony, punishable by up to 2 years in jail and a fine of up to £10,000. As with Manslaughter, criminal negligence is the accidental or unintentional killing of another person. However, someone accused of Manslaughter is accused of acting recklessly. In other words, they were aware they were causing significant risk, but chose to act that way regardless.

Comparatively, negligence applies to circumstances where the defendant is culpable for a death through criminal negligence. In these circumstances, the defendant should have been reasonably aware of the risks they created.

An example of a Criminally Negligent Homicide could include a parent or carer leaving a baby alone in a hot vehicle. If the baby dies or gets sick and subsequently dies as a result, the parent or carer can be charged with Criminally Negligent Homicide.

Notable Felony Murder Cases

In April 2023, 18-year-old Jaquell Desean Ray was charged with Murder in connection with the death of a 15-year-old girl who had accidentally overdosed on Fentanyl. Investigators found that Ray had sold the Fentanyl to the teenage girl. He was subsequently charged with the delivery of a controlled substance to a minor—a second-degree felony.

Since Ray’s felony—selling drugs to a minor—ultimately led to the teen’s death, the case qualified for the Felony Murder rule. As such, Ray was charged with Murder, even if he hadn’t intended to cause anyone’s death.

Sentencing and Penalties for Felony Murder Convictions

Felony Murder convictions in Texas are punishable by the same penalties associated with Murder convictions. It’s a first-degree felony, and penalties include:

  • A 5 to 99-year prison sentence (or a life imprisonment)
  • A fine of up to $10,000

However, even with the lowest sentence, felony convictions remain on a person’s criminal record for life, preventing them from finding new employment, renting, getting a loan, and more. The collateral consequences of a Murder conviction can have a devastating impact on a convicted person’s quality of life.

Several defenses can be used to contest charges or mitigate outcomes in Felony Murder cases. For a defendant to be convicted, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s actions directly led to the victim’s death.

If it can be proven that the victim’s death was the result of another intervening or external event or factor, it can be argued that the defendant’s actions did not directly result in death. An example of this in a Felony Murder case would be if a bystander suffers and dies from a heart attack during a robbery. It could be argued that the heart attack, or ill health, was the cause of death.

Since a significant element of Felony Murder is that the defendant was committing or attempting to commit an underlying felony, a defense against Felony Murder is to prove that the defendant was not committing or attempting to commit the underlying felony in the first place.

Finally, involuntary intoxication and mental incapacity may be used to ease culpability. If the defendant’s mental capability was impaired during the underlying felony, it can be argued that they were not aware or in control of their own actions.

What to Do if Charged with Felony Murder

Homicide cases are intricately complex, and the laws associated with homicide differ across jurisdictions. For anyone facing homicide accusations, the subtle differences and complexities can quickly become overwhelming.

That’s why it’s imperative for anyone accused of Murder to seek legal counsel. A local criminal defense lawyer with experience in homicide cases will understand the law as it applies to their jurisdiction and be able to help guide and navigate their client through—what is likely—a very stressful period in their life.

A skilled lawyer will work to have their client’s charges lowered or, if possible, dropped altogether. While facing Murder charges can be downright frightening, the right lawyer will always fight for the best possible outcome.

If you or a loved one are facing homicide charges in Texas, call Michael & Associates to book a free case review. The case review won’t cost you anything, but not seeking help may cost you your future!

FAQs About Felony Murder

Can Someone Be Charged with Felony Murder Even Without Direct Involvement in the Killing?

Yes. If the defendant’s criminal (felonious) actions ultimately led to the death of an individual, they can be charged with Murder even if they weren’t at the scene or directly involved in the death.

In the Fentanyl example we provided further up in this article, we described a case where the defendant was charged with Felony Murder after a girl died from accidentally overdosing on the illegal substances that the defendant had previously sold to her. His felony—selling drugs to a minor—was enough to charge him with Murder, even though he wasn’t directly involved in the death.

How Do Courts Determine Causation in Felony Murder Cases?

Generally, courts assess whether there is a direct causal relationship between the defendant’s actions and the victim’s death. Additionally, they consider various other factors, including foreseeability, timing, proximity, and whether any other external factors may have contributed to the death.

To determine the defendant’s level of culpability, the court will also assess whether the defendant had intent or knowledge that their actions could lead to death.

Are Sentences for Felony Murder Typically Harsher Than Other Forms of Homicide?

Felony Murder in Texas is a first-degree felony—the same as Murder. The only type of homicide with a harsher sentence than Murder is Capital Murder.

The sentences for Voluntary Murder (Murder mitigated by “heat of passion,”) Manslaughter and Criminally Negligent Homicide are less severe than Felony Murder.

What’s an Instance of a Major Felony?

Major Felonies in Texas are crimes that endanger public safety. They include:

  • Kidnapping
  • Bank robbery
  • Human trafficking
  • Hate crimes
  • Child pornography
  • Carjacking

What’s the Least Severe Level of Felony?

State Jail felonies are the least severe level of felony in Texas. Criminally Negligent Homicide is the only type of homicide punishable by a State Jail felony. Penalties for a State Jail felony include:

  • Between 180 days and two years in jail
  • A fine of no more than $10,000
Ben Michael

Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.

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