Felony murder charges are not like other murder charges. It applies to defendants who intended to commit a felony, such as a burglary, rape or arson, but then someone killed someone else while the felony was committed. In some cases, those charged may not even be present when the victim was killed. This controversial charge started hundreds of years ago in England, but that country abolished it in the 1950s and other countries followed suit. Nevertheless, the law lives on here in Texas and much of the United States.
Reform on the horizon?
Now there is a push by some looking to reevaluate sentencing guidelines of this broad and vague law, particularly concerning charging minors as an adult. Their argument points out that the charge does not always fit the crime. For example, a person who steals a car and takes friends joyriding can then be charged with felony murder if one of those friends shoots and kills someone in a drive-by shooting.
The connection can be even more tenuous, say if a group stops at a house to buy drugs, and one person does not want to participate in the deal, so they go back to the stolen car. The person in the vehicle can be charged with felony murder if one or more of the friends in the house kills someone in a drug deal gone bad.
Disproportionately affects minors
This law has been taken off the books in Michigan and Hawaii, with California and Illinois likely to follow. The argument is that many charged are underage boys who end up with a severe sentence that effectively leaves them unlikely to recover or rehabilitate. Moreover, it is especially unfair because youth are developmentally different than adults, particularly concerning their understanding of the consequences for their actions.
Charges must reflect the crime
It makes sense to narrow the focus of felony murder so that the charges fit the crime. As one Illinois lawmaker put it: the revision ensures that the prosecution charges defendants for what they did, not what they didn’t do. The Texas legal system is different than Illinois or California, but there is good sense in focusing the law that has such severe and life-changing consequences. While there is no change to felony murder on the horizon here, an aggressive and experienced criminal defense attorney can still argue that the charges need to fit the crime, and often can do so with positive results.