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Felony Murder

Felony Murder and Homicide Defense Attorney

Felony murder, codified under Section 782.04 of the Florida Statutes, is a crime in which a person dies because a different person or group of people commits a felony.  A person can be charged and convicted of felony murder when the death occurs during an attempt to commit a felony or during the escape from an attempt or a completed felony. A felony murder is not based on the intent to kill, but rather on the intent to commit a felony that results in an accidental death.  Felony murder is often called accomplice felony murder to better convey the idea that an entire group of defendants can be held responsible for a death so long as they all participated in the felony (or attempt or escape).  There are different types of felony murder that are categorized by the type of felony alleged and the role of the person (alleged felon/accomplice v. third party/victim) who is responsible for the killing.

What is the Felony Murder Rule?

The felony murder rule seeks to punish defendants who commit felonies that result in unexpected fatalities. The general principle is that anyone participating in a felony that results in death may be found guilty of both the felony and of murder.  This rule is not unique to Florida, but it persists here despite its abolishment in various international jurisdictions.  The controversy surrounding the felony murder rule is grounded in two outcomes of the application of the rule:

  1. Defendants are convicted of murder without forming any intent to kill; and
  2. Defendants are held responsible for the worst actions of their accomplices.

Because of the felony murder rule, people who don’t think hard enough about the often hypothetical “What’s the worst that could happen?” before getting involved in felonious activity find themselves facing unexpected murder charges.

 Which Felonies Trigger the Felony Murder Rule?

All felonies trigger the felony murder rule.  However, the vast majority of felony murder charges are based on the enumerated felonies listed in Section 782.04(1)(a)2.  That includes, in part:

  • Aggravated abuse of a child, elderly person, or disabled adult
  • Aggravated stalking
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Kidnapping
  • Resisting an officer with violence
  • Robbery
  • Sexual battery
  • Terrorism
  • Unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a bomb or destructive device
  • Human trafficking (added to the list in 2016)

Felonies not the enumerated list above can still be the basis of third-degree murder when charged as felony murder.  If an enumerated felony is the basis of a felony murder, the charge will be either first-degree felony murder or second-degree felony murder.  The felonies on the enumerated list are generally considered more dangerous than those not on the list and thus carry a harsher sentence.

What’s the Difference Between First Degree Felony Murder and Second Degree Felony Murder?

 While the enumerated felony list serves as the basis for both first- and second-degree felony murder, the difference between the two charges depends on the facts of the case.  More specifically, the status of the killer is determinative on this issue.  If the person responsible for the death of the deceased was a participant in the felony, then all the participants can be charged with first-degree felony murder.  If the person responsible for the death of the deceased was not participating in the commission of the felony (i.e., an intended or actual victim of the crime, or a third party), then all the participants in the felony can be charged with second-degree felony murder.

Related Felony-Based Homicide Charges

Distribution of controlled substances comprise a category of felony crimes that can form the basis of murder charges based on unintentional deaths in certain circumstances.  While not technically felony murder, the application of enhanced charges and punishment for accidental results form the basis for these laws.  Depending on the circumstances (including the type of controlled substances involved), a distribution or delivery of a controlled substance that leads to death can be first-degree murder, a capital offense.

Penalties for Felony Murder

First degree felony murder (in which an enumerated felony is alleged and a participant in the felony is responsible for the actual killing) is a capitol felony.  The only two sentencing options for a first-degree felony murder are life in prison or the death penalty.

Second-degree felony murder (in which an enumerated felony is alleged and a non-participant in the felony is responsible for the actual killing) is a first-degree felony punishable by life (PBL), with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Third degree murder (in which a non-enumerated felony is alleged) is a second-degree felony, with a maximum sentence of fifteen years in prison.  Enhanced charges or a scoresheet that recommends a sentence over fifteen years for this (or any) charge can mean a sentence of more than the statutory maximum. Do we have a page on what a scoresheet is? Couldn’t find it on Joel’s but may have missed it. If we do, link here.

Defenses to Felony Murder

Just as there are pretrial defenses and trial defenses that can be utilized in any case (e.g., misidentification, lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, alibi), there are specific defenses that can be attributed to the crimes of felony murder.  A practical application of the excusable homicide, justifiable homicide, or justifiable use of deadly force (self-defense or defense of others) defenses from the standard homicide jury instructions will generally not lead to favorable results at trial.  This is because these defenses are largely rooted in a defendant not participating in unlawful activity. A defendant’s commission of a felony negates these defenses and is also an element of proof for the felony murder charge.  Thus, a defense against the underlying felony must ALWAYS be thoroughly addressed by an experienced defense attorney to maintain your rights.

In any felony murder case where the defendant is not the killer, a thorough and detailed analysis of Florida’s law on accomplices, or principals, is necessary.  A principal is someone who participates in the crime of another by helping or encouragement.  If the state fails to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a defendant is a principal in a felony murder case, then there will be no conviction.  Having an attorney who understands the rule of principals in Florida law is essential in a felony murder case.

Tampa Felony Murder Defense Lawyer

Felony Murder is a very serious charge and can not only threaten your freedom but severely impact your future. Getting convicted of a felony murder has the potential to ruin the rest of your life. If you or a loved one has been accused of committing a felony murder in Tampa, Florida, Hillsborough County, or the surrounding Tampa Bay areas, contact an experienced murder defense attorney in Tampa today. Get in contact with Elsea Law Firm, P.A. to schedule your free consultation.

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