Published on:

Court Discusses Felony Murder Rule


According to the accused man’s trial testimony, he and several others met at an uptown hotel to arrange a robbery of their acquaintances that were operating a shooting gallery for heroin in a nearby apartment. They completed their plans and proceeded to the apartment, armed with at least two loaded guns. They ordered the occupants to strip, tied them up, blindfolded them and removed their money and clothing.

The accused man states that after he left the apartment, as he was going down the stairs his female accomplice shot the owner of the apartment, the man happened to be her former lover. He claims that she was motivated by resentments stemming from this prior relationship, and that the killing was therefore not connected to the robbery.

New York Criminal Lawyer the jury offered no testimony to dispute the accused man’s version of the events. The surviving robbery victims did not see who actually fired the fatal shot as they were all still blindfolded. The accused man does not argue, nor could he, that the fact that he was not proven to be the actual shooter absolves him of the felony murder charge. Having admitted his participation in the robbery, the accused man would ordinarily be responsible for the murder of the apartment owner even if he lacked the specific intent to cause his death and did not personally contribute to the homicide. He claims, however, that the homicide case was not sufficiently connected to the felony to invoke the provisions of the felony murder statute. At issue is the meaning (if any) of the phrase in furtherance of the robbery as used in the felony murder statute. The question does not appear to have been answered in any reported decisions.

Penal Law states that one who causes the death of another in the course of and in furtherance of one of nine enumerated felonies, of which robbery is one, is guilty of murder in the second degree. At first glance, the section seems to establish strict liability for any death occurring during a felony. Yet if the phrase in furtherance is to have any meaning at all, it must establish some limitations on the doctrine.

The felony murder rule operates under the fiction of transferred intent. A Bronx Criminal Lawyer said that even when an individual does not intend to kill, when a death occurs in the course of a felony, intent to perpetrate a felony is transferred to the homicide.

At common law, however, some legal relationship had to exist between the felony and the killing; more than mere coincidence of time and place was necessary. In situations involving accomplices, murder was imputed to coconspirators only if committed in pursuance of the unlawful act. Murders collateral to the conspiracy is not imputed to others.

Accidental deaths during felonies were also not encompassed within the original common law rule. Although a number of jurisdictions have retained the common law rule, others have expanded the application of the felony murder doctrine to include accidental deaths. Although the New York cases have not spoken directly to the issue, certain specific exceptions to rigid application of the felony murder rule have been created.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the felony murder counts of the indictment, holding that even though the deaths were the foreseeable consequence of the underlying assault, the accused could not be held responsible for the felony murder. Thus, a felony murder embraces not any incidentally coincident with the felony but only those committed by one of the criminals in the attempted execution of the unlawful end. Although the homicide itself need not be within the common design the act which results in death must be in furtherance of the unlawful purpose act must be committed in furtherance of a common object or purpose. Even when the homicide is committed by one of the persons engaged in the underlying felony, if that person acts for a private purpose unrelated to the felony, the remaining members of the group are not liable for the murder.

The accused man claims that the apartment owner was not shot in furtherance of the felony, but for either the private motive of the shooter or for totally gratuitous purposes. He argues that in either case the shooting could not be said to be in furtherance of the robbery. If the shooter killed for some personal reason and merely took advantage of the robbery to carry out his vendetta, the killing would not be attributable to the accused as an accomplice because it would have been outside the scope of the felony.

The killing of the apartment owner, a single witness out of the many who were well acquainted with the robbers, did not weaken the identification of the accused man and his accomplices as the perpetrators of the robbery. Someone interested in eliminating witnesses would, under the circumstances, eliminate not one but all. Similarly, the shooting certainly did not aid in the escape of the robbers or delay the alarm because all of the robbery victims had been bound and were unable to summon help. Indeed, if anything, killing only one member of the entire group would likely raise an alarm, and hinder, not further, the robbery. Since the shooting fails to advance any aspect of the robbery, and in fact, may be seen to be counterproductive to its accomplishment, the accused argues that it could not have been within the common object or purpose of the felony and was for a private motive of the shooter.

Although the arguments are not completely illogical, they amount to no more than speculation, and/or criticism of the criminal expertise of the robbers. There is no evidence in the record before the court of a private motive to kill the apartment owner. It is true that proof of such a motive might very well mandate the dismissal of the felony murder count, but the court cannot supply it for defendant under the instant fact situation.

The accused also argues that, even if no private motive existed, the fact that the killing was senseless in that it did not advance the robbery or the subsequent escape removes it from felony murder liability, which requires a killing in furtherance of the felony.

The distinction between personal motive and lack of motive is crucial. In the case of murder for personal motive, the homicide shares with the felony only coincidence of time and place; the killer takes advantage of the circumstances of the felony to carry out a personal vendetta which he might well have carried out at any time. By definition, the murder was not within the common plan or execution. In that case the personal motive of the killer makes it solely his own act and responsibility and removes the homicide from the compass of the felony which was, to that point, common to all the accomplices. In other words, a private motive breaks the nexus between felony and killing. On the other hand, where the killing is gratuitous, there is no private motive which personalizes the act to the actor and so makes it his single responsibility. We cannot say that the killing was outside the ambit of the felony or unrelated to it. It may not have advanced it, but it was logically an integral aspect of it. The nexus between killing and felony still exists. There is no reason, therefore, to restrict criminal responsibility to the shooter alone, and it is not inappropriate that the other participants in the felony share the consequences of the senseless act as they share liability for the other criminal acts committed during the felony.

The accused was a willing and active participant in the underlying gunpoint robbery. He was therefore accountable as if principal for the acts of his accomplices which were within the compass of the crime. More than mere concomitant of the robbery, the murder of the apartment owner was the intentional act of an accomplice, perpetrated without compunction or reason and without personal motive, during the course of the crime. Growing out of the robbery, the homicide was a constituent component of the felony. Liability, for this reason, rests on the accused as well as the shooter. Accordingly the accused man’s motion is denied.

Crime does not only hurt the victims and their families physically or financially, for robbery cases. The trauma it brings can never be compensated with any amount of money, only justice could probably take away the pain that a crime brings. When you are considering a criminal lawsuit, whether it involves a robbery, sex crimes or a theft matter, consult a New York Lawyer or a NY Robbery Attorney from Stephen Bilkis and Associates.

Contact Information