A 15-year-old Chicago boy was charged in February with the murder of his friend, a 16-year-old Chicago boy, who was shot in the head during the commission of an armed robbery. But this case has a twist – the victim was killed by an off-duty police officer, who himself was the victim of an attempted armed robbery by the victim and his friend. So how can the boy be charged with murder when he did not pull the trigger? Because of a controversial law known as the felony murder rule.
Illinois Felony Murder Rule
A criminal defendant can be charged with first degree murder in Illinois if the victim was killed while the defendant was “attempting or committing a forcible felony other than second degree murder.” Forcible felonies include armed robbery, burglary, sexual assault, or any other violent felony.
Although the full statute states that “a person who kills an individual” is the one charged with first degree murder, under the proximate cause theory of felony murder, the defendant does not have to be the one who actually killed the victim. Instead, the defendant can be charged for the death because the death was so closely related to the commission of the underlying felony.
The felony murder rule is based, then, on the assumption that any person committing a forcible felony – such as armed robbery – should realize that one of the risks is that somebody, either the victim or one of the assailants, may be killed. It does not matter if the assailant had no intention of killing anybody. Maybe the weapon was brought along just to scare the victim. Perhaps, even, it was not loaded, so there was no possible way the assailant could kill the victim.
But under the felony murder rule, intent is irrelevant. The only thing that matters in proving felony murder is that the underlying crime was a forcible felony. This makes defending against the charge extremely difficult, since the prosecution does not need to prove intent for the first-degree murder charge to stick.
Self-defense is not a defense to a charge of felony murder. Self-defense is the justified use of force against an unjustified force. Since armed robbery is the unjustified use of force, a person charged with felony murder could not argue that he was protecting himself from the victim.
Defending against a felony murder charge is fact intensive and depends on the circumstances surrounding each case. It may be possible to defend against a felony murder charge if the facts show that the defendant abandoned the plan before it happened (for example, if in this case the defendant had fled the scene as soon as he realized his friend had a gun).
Or, if the underlying crime began as a non-forcible felony, it may be possible to argue that the defendant could not have known the underlying crime could lead to murder because it did not begin as a forcible felony (for example, if the defendant and his friend had been robbing a vacant car and were then approached by the owner, at which point it escalated to a forcible felony).
Because there are so few defenses to a charge of felony murder, and because they are all fact sensitive, it is extremely important that you speak with a criminal defense attorney immediately if you are being charged with felony murder. While intent regarding the murder is irrelevant, intent regarding commission of the underlying crime may be partially relevant, and it is important to discuss those facts with a criminal defense attorney who understands the felony murder rule prior to making any statements to the police. Continue reading