Felony murder is on the books in a number of states. It is an arcane legal concept that broadens the crime of murder to include those who set into motion a series of events that lead to a person’s death, regardless of their intent. The legal doctrine can be traced back to Elizabethan England, but was abolished in the United Kingdom decades ago, and no longer exists in other common law countries.
Currently, there are 13 states that accept a proximate theory of felony murder – meaning that a person can be liable for a “foreseeable” death, even if the victim was killed by an outside party, such as a police officer, according to The Gothamist. For instance, New York and Pennsylvania share that distinction with states like Texas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
The legal framework has resulted in convictions widely seen as draconian. In 2004, a Florida teenager who lent his car to a group of friends who later murdered a woman was sentenced to life in prison. More recently, a pregnant woman in Alabama was charged in the death of her own fetus, after police said she started the fight that led to her being shot in the stomach.
In recent years, support for the doctrine has shown signs of weakening. It was deemed “barbaric” by the Supreme Court of California, which scaled back its own law in 2019, following a similar decision in Massachusetts. Both Illinois and Colorado have since amended their felony murder laws as part of criminal justice reforms passed in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a police officer.
That has left New York as one of four blue states – with New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – that still has the law on the books, according to Guyora Binder, a law professor at SUNY Buffalo and the author of the book Felony Murder.
“Most states have an agency rule that would prevent Jagger Freeman from being guilty for a friendly fire killing by a police officer,” Binder said. “New York has the most expansive version of the law.”
Research suggests the charge is wielded disproportionately against Black defendants. Of the 649 people convicted of felony murder in New York over the last two decades, 83% have been Black or Latino, according to data provided to Gothamist by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
In New York City, the numbers are even more skewed: Since 2002, 92% of all defendants charged with felony murder in the five boroughs have been Black or Latino.
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