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What is “Felony Murder” in Maryland?

Murder refers to the intentional killing of another human being. When death is the result of accidental but reckless behavior, prosecutors will normally charge the killer with manslaughter instead. However, if an accidental death occurs during the commission of another, unrelated felony, then prosecutors may charge the accused with murder.

This is known as the felony murder rule. A common example is an armed robbery. If a person sets out to rob a bank and, during the commission of the robbery, shoots and kills someone, that is felony murder. The defendant cannot avoid a murder conviction by claiming they never intended to kill anyone. The commission of the underlying felony–in this case armed robbery–allows the jury to conclude a death arising from that crime was murder.

Court of Special Appeals: Killing of Police Officer Was Felony Murder, Not Vehicular Manslaughter

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently addressed a potential conflict in the state’s laws governing felony murder and vehicular manslaughter. The case, Harris v. State, began with a burglary. A Baltimore City man returned home one night to find someone had broken in and stolen his Jeep.

Three days later, police connected the stolen Jeep to a string of additional burglaries throughout Baltimore. A Baltimore County police officer responded to one of the reported robberies. She located the Jeep and approached it in a closed cul-de-sac. The officer then exited her vehicle to block the Jeep. She pulled out her service weapon, pointed it at the Jeep, and ordered the driver to stop. Instead, the Jeep accelerated, striking and killing the officer.

The police later arrested the defendant as one of a group of teenagers responsible for the robberies. During police questioning, the defendant admitted he was driving the Jeep when it killed the officer. The defendant said he never intended to hurt the officer; he was simply “scared” and hit her without realizing it.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. They jury convicted the defendant of that crime plus one of the burglaries. The trial judge then sentenced the defendant to life in prison on the murder conviction.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his actions constituted “misdemeanor manslaughter by automobile,” which “preempted” any felony murder charge. Maryland’s vehicular manslaughter statute provides that a person commits a misdemeanor when they “cause the death of another as a result of the person’s driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a grossly negligent manner.”

As the Court of Special Appeals explained, however, vehicular manslaughter only covers “unintended homicide.” In a felony murder case such as this, the “malice involved in the underlying felony is permitted to stand in the place of the malice that would otherwise be required with respect to the killing.” In other words, prosecutors proved the defendant intended to commit burglary. And since the defendant killed the police officer in the course of avoiding capture for that burglary, his intent to commit the original burglary was sufficient to render this case a felony murder and not vehicular manslaughter.

Contact Calvert County, Maryland, Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.