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Greensboro Criminal Attorney: Felony Murder Rule

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Greensboro Criminal Defense Attorney Explains: Felony Murder


Briefly defined, the felony murder rule states that, if a death occurs during the course of another felony, then the person or persons charged in the underlying crime can also be charged and convicted of either first-degree murder or, worse, first-degree capital murder.

The theory behind the law is that felonies are inherently dangerous to our society and, therefore, a defendant engaging in a felony should take responsibility for the outcome – particularly if the felony results in the death of the victim.

Technically, only certain crimes can qualify as the underlying felony in the felony murder rule but in reality the courts have interpreted that fairly broadly.

The North Carolina School of Government’s (at the University of North Carolina) Criminal Law Blog has an excellent post on this.

Here are the crimes that, per statute, (see subsection (a)), qualify for the felony murder rule:

  • arson
  • rape or a felony sex offense
  • robbery
  • kidnapping
  • burglary or
  • a felony committed or attempted with the use of a deadly weapon

Notice that last one: it’s sort of a catch all. And therein lies the broadness of the felony murder rule.  As noted by the Criminal Law blog, the courts have interpreted this quite broadly. Applicable crimes include: drug trafficking, felony breaking and/or entering, felonious child abuse, attempted sale of cocaine, felony larceny or discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

The effect of this is quite staggering. Consider this example: a defendant breaks into a house. While in the process of the B&E, a neigh or comes to investigate, confronts the defendant. A struggle ensues during which the neighbor dies. A simple, run-of-the-mill B&E (a Class H felony, the next-to-lowest felony) has turned into first-degree murder for which the defendant could face a capital conviction and, therefore, execution.

Another example: a defendant is engaging in shoplifting. While shoplifting, a store employee confronts the defendant, and an assault ensues. This scenario, so far, constitutes common law robbery – an assault combined with a larceny – a Class G felony. During the assault, the employee falls, injures his head and dies as a result of his wounds. In this case, what began as a simple shoplifting (a class 3 misdemeanor, the lowest level of crime there is in North Carolina) has turned into what could conceivably be capital murder.

In North Carolina, capital convictions are, thankfully, rare. But it is possible that a defendant committing a low-level felony could be punished capitally via the felony murder rule.

If you have any questions about your criminal case in Greensboro, High Point, or Asheboro, North Carolina, contact Garrett, Walker, Aycoth & Olson for a free consultation.