Felony Murder in Florida

April 7, 2022 Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes

Do you trust your friends? For most people – the answer is yes. Imagine you are 20 years old, hungover, on the couch and your friend asks to borrow your car, saying “I’m going to rob someone!” Thinking it’s a joke, or thinking it isn’t a joke and assuming they will stick to robbery, or maybe not even hearing the full sentence, you toss your friend the keys, and out the door they go. Groggy, you might nap or watch some television, but what you don’t know is that the theft is going horribly wrong. During the theft, things turn violent, and someone is killed. You’re still on your couch, but somehow, you end up going to prison for life for murder. I’m sure you’re thinking that this sounds crazy, you just lent your friend the keys, you had no way of knowing what would result! Ryan Holle, convicted of murder and serving life without the chance of parole in Florida would tell you the possibility is more real than you think. A legal doctrine called the felony murder rule can lead to shocking results.

What is the Felony Murder Rule?

Felony murder is codified in Florida Statute Section 782.04(1)(a)(2) and occurs when someone kills another while engaged in the commission or attempting the commission of, a statutorily enumerated felony, regardless of whether the person intended to kill someone else.

So, if you are engaged in the commission or attempting to commit, any of these felonies and someone ends up dead, you could be found guilty of murder:

Felony Murder Rule Penalties

The felony murder rule is charged as a capital felony. If you are convicted of felony murder, it is treated as first-degree murder. As such, only two sentencing options are available if a defendant is found guilty:

  • Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; and
  • The death penalty.

To read more about other homicide crimes and their penalties, visit our blog post here.

The History of the Felony Murder Rule

Currently, the United States is the only nation in the world still using the felony murder rule. Originally, the rule was incepted in England in the 1700s during the early times of criminal jurisprudence. It was subsequently abolished in 1957, causing other common law countries to follow their lead.

In the United States, the federal government, 44 states, and Washington D.C. all have some statutory form of the felony murder rule. Six states – Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, do not have felony murder statutes.

Opinions on the Felony Murder Rule

The felony murder rule has long been the subject of legal debate, with most legal minds seeing it as too severe and not helpful, probably due to the fact that one in five inmates serving life sentences or sitting on death row did not actually kill anyone.

Adnan Khan, a man who committed a robbery during which an accomplice unexpectedly killed their victim, and was given a life sentence, shares his opinion on the felony murder rule:

Maybe you’re thinking I deserved to go to prison, and I agree with you. I committed a robbery, and I should be held responsible. But one of the basic principles of a fair legal system is that people should only be held responsible for the crimes that they committed, not for crimes committed by someone else. The felony murder rule dates way back to England in the 1700s, but they repealed it in 1957. In fact, every other country that had a version of the felony murder rule has ditched it except one. Now, the felony murder rule does have its supporters. If you set out to commit a crime, you should expect that someone’s going to get hurt. But how can you expect an accidental death or know that someone is going to suddenly pull out a weapon. The felony murder rule deters people from being involved in violent crime. That might work if people knew the rule even existed. The first time I heard about it was when I was first charged. Well, someone should be held responsible when a person is killed. Yes, someone should be held responsible, but it should be the person who actually did it. So how many people are incarcerated for murders everyone agrees they didn’t commit? The truth is we don’t even know. Nobody is keeping track of this, not even the courts. The closest we have is a guess from a study of crime data. It said that one in five people for murder convictions are there for felony murder. If that’s true — and again, we’re not for sure — but if that’s true, that’s 36,000 people in prison right now serving time for murders they should never have been charged with.

Guest columnist, Randy Lambert, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, wrote a column covering the many issues with this outdated and severe rule, going back to Ryan Holle’s story:

Applying the felony-murder rule to minor participants in crimes has resulted in such miscarriages of justice that then Gov. Rick Scott chose to intervene to correct one. In 2004, Ryan Holle, a 20-year-old Pensacola resident, was convicted of first-degree murder under this rule for lending his car to a friend, who used the car in a burglary during which a murder was committed. At no point was Holle accused of participating in the burglary.

Holle told the New York Times that he thought his friend was joking about using his car to commit a burglary. After years of fighting in the appellate courts without success, Holle was finally given some relief by Scott, who reduced his sentence on June 24, 2015.

“I believe that the purpose of commutations is to undo such obviously inequitable results,” Scott told the Tampa Bay Times at the time. “Because Ryan Holle’s responsibility for [the victim’s] death is clearly less than [his co-defendant’s], I believe his sentence should likewise be less.”

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one have been charged with murder in Florida, an experienced Tallahassee murder defense lawyer can defend you. Contact an experienced homicide attorney as soon as possible. All forms of homicide are major charges, with severe consequences. The felony murder rule in particular can be incredibly severe despite a lack of criminal liability. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law firm will seek to get your charges reduced or dismissed, and if you plead “not guilty,” they will fight the prosecution in court. Call us at (850) 681-7777 to set up a free consultation to talk about your homicide charge or send an online message today!

Written by Gabi D’Esposito

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