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A rule of law that holds that if a killing occurs during the commission or attempted commission of a felony (a major crime), the person or persons responsible for the felony can be charged with murder.
Generally an intent to kill is not necessary for felony-murder. The rule becomes operative when there is a killing during or a death soon after the felony, and there is some causal connection between the felony and the killing.
The felony-murder rule originated in England under the common law. Initially it was strictly applied, encompassing any death that occurred during the course of a felony, regardless of who caused it. Therefore, if a police officer attempting to stop a robbery accidentally shot and killed an innocent passerby, the robber could be charged with murder.
Today most jurisdictions have limited the rule by requiring that the felony must be a dangerous one or that the killing is foreseeable, or both. Statutes that restrict the application of the rule to dangerous felonies usually enumerate the crimes. Burglary, kidnapping, rape, and robbery are typical felonies that invoke the rule. Under a number of statutes, the felony must be a proximate cause of the death. In other words, the killing must have been a natural and direct consequence of the felony.
Felony-murder cannot be charged if all the elements of the felony are included in the elements of murder. This is known as the merger doctrine, which holds that if the underlying felony merges with the killing, the felony cannot constitute felony-murder. For example, all of the elements of assault and battery with a deadly weapon are included in murder. If a killing, therefore, occurred during the course of this crime, the accused would be charged with murder.
The future of the felony-murder rule is in doubt. Some jurisdictions have abolished the rule and others continue to limit its application. In the 1982 case of Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 102 S. Ct. 3368, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1140, the Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of the death penalty upon an accomplice who neither kills, attempts to kill, or intends that a killing occur or lethal force be used in the commission of a felony-murder constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In those states that have retained the offense, it is usually classified as murder in the first degree, for which the penalty might be death or imprisonment.