The rule at common law as incorporated into the legal system of the early United States was that a person is guilty of murder (and not some lesser offense of killing) if he killed another person during the commission or attempted commission of any felony. This rule is known as the “felony-murder rule.” It was abolished in England in the mid-20th century and never existed in such continental nations as France or Germany. The rule became common, however, in various jurisdictions throughout the United States, although it never escaped criticism.
Felony murder is bifurcated into first-degree and second-degree murder: the former arises when the killing of another results from the commission of an enumerated felony; the latter arises when the killing of another results from the commission of an unspecified felony. The felony-murder rule negates any investigation into the objective intent of the offender; it obtains regardless of whether the offender killed his victim intentionally, recklessly, accidentally, or unforeseeably. Although it dispenses with the element of malice that is requisite to a finding of murder, the felony-murder rule retains by implication the concept of malice insofar as the intent to commit a felony is, under the rule, constitutive of malice for murder. The rule, in essence, conflates the intent to commit one wrong with the intent to commit another wrong, namely, the termination of another’s life. The intent to do a felonious wrong is, on this understanding, sufficiently serious to bypass any consideration of the nature of the exact wrong that was contemplated.
The most common justification for the felony-murder rule is that it deters dangerous felonious behavior and decreases the chance that an innocent bystander will suffer bodily harm from a high-risk felony. The possibility of a more severe conviction and sentence, according to this theory, reduces the number of negligent and accidental killings that might have taken place during the commission of a felony. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., supported the felony-murder rule, believing as he did that a felonious offender who kills another person during the commission of any felony ought to be punished as a murderer, even if the killing was not foreseeable based on the circumstances of the felony. Critics of the deterrence justification for the felony-murder rule have argued that no rule can deter an unintended act.
Another justification for the felony-murder rule is that it affirms the sanctity and dignity of human life. This justification answers in the affirmative the question whether a felony resulting in death is more serious than a felony not resulting in death. Because a felony resulting in death is, in fact, more serious, according to this logic, a felony murderer owes a greater debt to society and must accordingly suffer a more extreme punishment. Critics of this view argue that the culpability for the two separate harms—the felony and the killing—must remain separate and be analyzed independently of each other. These critics suggest that the felony-murder rule runs up against constitutional principles regarding proportional punishment (i.e., whether the punishment “fits” the crime) and that there is no justice or fairness in punishing a felon for a harm (death) that was unintended.