Burglaries, Heart Attacks, and Murder?

When defendants decide to commit a felonious act, they are also subjecting themselves to the possibility of being charged with first-degree murder. How? The felony murder doctrine allows for prosecutors to charge defendants with first-degree murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony. To offer more clarity on the subject, it is best to look at real case examples and the reoccurring themes that arise within the felony murder doctrine.

Larry Whitfield, of North Carolina, was charged with first-degree murder stemming from a robbery that led to the death of a 79-year-old woman. During the robbery, Mr. Whitfield expressed that he did not want to hurt the elderly woman, and asked her to sit in the other room while the robbery was committed. However, the elderly woman died of a stress induced heart attack. Mr. Whitfield was subsequently charged with first-degree murder by way of felony murder. The underlying felony was robbery, which negates the premeditation and deliberation elements associated with first-degree murder. Essentially, the intent to commit the felonious act, in this case robbery, transfers to satisfy the intent the commit first-degree murder. A similar fact pattern arose in Pennsylvania. Mark Fisher was convicted of a felony murder charge stemming from a home invasion. What was the cause of death on these autopsy reports? Fear induced heart attack.

How is the criminal justice system prosecuting defendants for first-degree murder, using the felony murder doctrine, although it contradicts the very notion of traditional first-degree murder? In People v. Stamp, the California court stated that felony murder applies to instances of heart attack during the commission of a robbery even though the deaths were unforeseeable. In essence, by committing felonious acts, the defendants are absorbing the responsibility for any deaths that may occur in connection with their felonious acts State v. Shaw, also a robbery case resulting in a heart attack, determined that only a causal connection between the felonious act and the death is required. Shaw, the defendant, argued the connection between robbery and a heart attack is too remote to be held criminally accountable; however, the court disagreed and convicted on felony murder.

Although as citizens it is easy to sympathize with victims who were literally “scared to death”, does this doctrine align with our criminal justice system and our notions of fairness and justice? Felony murder has been widely criticized by academics and practitioners alike. Opponents to the felony murder doctrine often turn to the case of Ryan Holle. Mr. Holle woke one morning and allowed his roommate to borrow his car. At this point, Mr. Holle believed his roommate was using his car to get food, along with other friends. Instead, Mr. Holle’s roommate used the car to commit both a robbery and a murder. Mr. Holle was then charged with felony murder for lending the car, which was then used to commit the heinous crimes. How could the prosecutor justify charging Mr. Holle with murder when he never left his house, and there was no evidence to suggest that he was involved or present at the crime scene. The prosecutor explained, “no car, no crime”.

Given Mr. Holle’s case, we are forced to ask the question whether the felony murder doctrine is too expansive, and whether it aligns with our criminal justice system at all? Does felony murder allow for abuse of prosecutorial discretion because premeditation and deliberation are essentially negated by the underlying felony? Or should criminals absorb liability for all the consequences that arise from their felonious acts? These questions have been long debated, and we have seen that many states have abolished the felony murder doctrine altogether. However, in larger states, such as Florida and California, felony murder is thriving and prosecutors are invoking the doctrine for swift and harsh convictions.

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