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Injustice and Felony Murder

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Via Plumer, Adam Liptak discusses the case of a 20-year-old in Florida serving life without parole for lending some friends his car. What’s particularly useful in the article is that Liptak makes clear how unusual it is for the U.S. to have retained the concept of felony murder that holds accomplices equally responsible for murders committed by others regardless of their intentions:

Most scholars trace the doctrine, which is an aspect of the felony murder rule, to English common law, but Parliament abolished it in 1957. The felony murder rule, which has many variations, generally broadens murder liability for participants in violent felonies in two ways. An unintended killing during a felony is considered murder under the rule. So is, as Mr. Holle learned, a killing by an accomplice.

India and other common law countries have followed England in abolishing the doctrine. In 1990, the Canadian Supreme Court did away with felony murder liability for accomplices, saying it violated “the principle that punishment must be proportionate to the moral blameworthiness of the offender.”

Countries outside the common law tradition agree. “The view in Europe,” said James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative law at Yale, “is that we hold people responsible for their own acts and not the acts of others.”

The point here is not that Holle is entirely innocent, but it seems far more appropriate to sentence him as an accomplice before the fact than as a murderer. (And when combined with another distinctive feature of the United States compared to other legal regimes — maintaining the death penalty — the potential for injustice is even more severe.)

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