UNDERSTAND HOW FUNDAMENTALLY UNFAIR THE FELONY MURDER RULE IS.
On November 7, 2014, in Iowa, 16-year-old Keyon Harrison was approached by his friend, Keith Collins. Collins informed Harrison he needed to make money to travel to Chicago with his mom. He planned to obtain the money by robbing Aaron McHenry. Earlier that day, McHenry had offered to sell Collins marijuana. Harrison advised Collins against the robbery but agreed to go with him to meet up with McHenry. The three met that evening near a family dollar store.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing a shoving match between Collins and McHenry. It ended when Collins shot and killed McHenry. This fact is undisputed: Collins, not Harrison, was the shooter. No evidence established that Harrison knew that Collins had a gun, or that Collins intended to use a gun. However, because he knew that Collins intended to rob McHenry and went with him to meet McHenry, and because he ran away with Collins after the robbery, Harrison was implicated in the robbery as an aider and abettor. And because McHenry died during a commission of a robbery, the state charged and convicted Harrison of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. Harrison is currently serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. 
On September 26, 2008, in North Carolina, 20-year-old Larry Whitfield attempted to rob a credit union. He was unsuccessful. To evade capture by police, he broke into Mary Parnell, a 79-year-old grandmother’s home. Parnell, who had a history of heart disease and high blood pressure, was home alone. Whitfield assured her he intended no harm to her. He wanted to use her phone to call a getaway driver. Parnell was not convinced. She suffered a heart attack and died.
The United States charged and convicted Whitfield of first-degree murder under a federal felony murder statute. He was sentenced to life in prison. However, in 2012, his life sentence was vacated due to mere technicality. His lawyers brilliantly spotted an error in his indictment. And they successfully argued that the language in the indictment did not match the part of the felony murder statute that mandated a life prison sentence. He was re-sentenced to 22 years in prison. He is scheduled to be released in 2032. 
And on July 16, 2001, in Florida, 33-year-old Rebecca Forward was tricked into a robbery by her boyfriend. Forwards was aware that her boyfriend, Anthony Kenner, intended to rob a motel with his friend, Alphonso Banks in the days to come. However, she was not aware that they actually intended to carry out the robbery on the day all three were at the motel. The motel owner, Jayantilal Shah, was alone in the motel. Forward stood in horror as she watched Kenner and Banks bind Shah’s feet, hands, and mouth area up with duck tape. They stole $134 from the motel, which Kenner and Banks split among themselves. Forward received nothing.
What neither Kenner, Banks nor Forward knew was that the motel owner had suffocated under the pressure of the duct tape and died. The state charged Forward with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. She was threatened with a death sentence and manipulated by her own attorney to plead guilty to the charge. She is currently serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. 
The above real-life cases illustrate how the felony murder rule operates in application. Under the felony murder rule, a defendant need not intend to kill the victim or actually be the one who kills the victim. As long as the victim dies while the defendant is committing or attempting to commit a felony, or while the defendant is fleeing after the commission of the felony, the defendant is strictly held liable for the victim’s death. The prosecution needs to only prove the defendant’s involvement in the underlying felony.
To a layman, the felony murder rule may make sense: an innocent person died, the innocent person died because of the actions of the defendant, someone needs to be held responsible for the death, and that person ought to be the defendant because but for his actions, the victim would not have died.
But this is not how criminal law works.
Under criminal law, a person is not held responsible for the death of another person simply because his actions caused the other person to die. What ultimately determines whether a defendant is held responsible for a death he or she caused is the defendant’s mental state at the time of the killing.
Additionally, under criminal law, all killings are not treated the same. If all killings were treated the same, then all killings would be punished the same. But all killings are not punished the same. Again, what ultimately determines how a defendant is punished for a death he or she caused is the defendant’s mental state at the time of the killing.
For example, where a defendant acts with premeditation, and with the purpose of causing the victim to die, and then causes the victim to die, that killing is classified as first-degree murder. Here, the defendant receives the most serious punishment.
On the other hand, where it is not the defendant’s purpose to kill the victim, but she inflicts serious bodily injury onto the victim and the victim succumbs to the injuries and dies, this killing is classified as second-degree murder. Here, the defendant receives a less severe punishment than first-degree murder.
Also, where it is the defendant’s purpose to kill the victim, but the defendant acted under extreme emotional distress or in the heat of passion that the law is willing to recognize as reasonable, this killing is classified as voluntary manslaughter. Here, the defendant receives a less severe punishment than second-degree murder.
And where the victim dies as a result of the defendant’s criminal negligence or recklessness, this killing is classified as involuntary manslaughter. Here, the defendant receives a less severe punishment than voluntary manslaughter.
It is worth noting that irrespective of how a killing is classified—whether as first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter— human life is lost. The victim does not “die less” because his death is classified as involuntary manslaughter. Neither does the victim “die more” because his death is classified as first-degree murder. But for the purposes of determinging the defendants level of culpability and the appropriate punishment to impose, some deaths receive a more consequential classification than others.
Although murder statutes vary from state to state, all the different levels of classifications of murder require a showing of the defendant’s mental state at the time of the killing to determine the defendant’s level of culpability. The only lone exception to this norm is the felony murder rule. The rule does not require a showing of the defendant’s mental state for a murder conviction. When it applies, the felony murder rule allows accidental killings to be punished as severely as a premeditated purposeful killing.
The felony murder rule first originated in England. The history of the rule is not very well documented so it is unclear exactly which case law gave rise to the rule. The lack of proper documentation of its origins is proof that the rule did not arise out of an intentional, and rational judicial lawmaking.
In any event, when the law was first adopted in England, there were very few common-law felonies.  The offenses classified as felonies were all inherently dangerous to human life.  And most importantly, all felonies were punished by death. Therefore, for purposes of punishment, the felony murder rule made no difference. The practical effect of the felony murder rule was to brand as murderers defendants who committed acts that were serious and dangerous to human life when such acts resulted in another’s death.
In contrast to modern America, there are numerous felonies. All felonies are not inherently dangerous to human life. And all felonies are not punished by death. Therefore, the felony murder rule does not have the same effect in application as it did when it was adopted as part of the common law in England.
In 1957, England abolished the felony murder rule. India, Canada, and all other common law nations have followed the example of England. The United States still remains the only nation, who adopted the English common law, that still retains the felony murder rule as part of its law.
The United States remains the only common law nation that still retains the felony murder rule because of purely political reasons. There are other means of holding defendants accountable for the deaths they cause (even accidental once) during the course of or in furtherance of their criminal activity. The felony murder rule is preferable because it is the easiest way to hold such defendants liable for accidental death. State legislators, prosecutors, and judges are elected officials. And since tough-on-crime rhetoric has a great influence on whether an elected official wins office, most are unwilling to appear as being against the rule for fear of being labeled a “soft on crime” candidate. What better way to appear tough on crime than to vehemently declare that those who terrorize the community with their criminal activities and cause another’s death in the process will be held strictly liable for the death? The implication being that they will be locked away forever and in some cases be put to death themselves.
To some, the harsh penalty of the felony murder rule is justified because a person who commits a felony is not blameless. But when the felony murder rule is applied to defendants like Harrison, Whitfield, and Forward, the rule is excessively harsh. For example, Harrison was not the shooter. He did not kill anyone. But Iowa punished him just as it would a person his age, who by premeditation, killed another person in cold blood. And the state could do this only because of the felony murder rule. Likewise, Forward did not kill anyone. She did not participate in binding Shah with the duck tape. But she is set to spend the rest of her natural life behind bars. And although Whitfield intended no harm to Parnell, her unfortunate death almost cost him his freedom for the rest of his life.
Were we to concede that Harrison and Forward were not entirely blameless because they knew of others intent to commit a robbery and acquiesced to the decision, then the most the two should reasonably be guilty of is the robbery. Not for the murder committed by others, which they had no reason to know or suspect would occur. Likewise Whitfield is not completely blameless because he was an attempted bank robber evading capture. But does that justify punishing him as severely as though he purposefully, with premeditation killed Parnell? The notions of culpability and proportionality, which are the bedrock of criminal law, do not justify this degree of punishment.
The felony murder rule is excessively harsh because it imposes punishments that are disproportionate to a defendant’s actual culpability. It is a fundamental belief of American criminal law that causing harm accidentally must be punished less severely than causing harm intentionally.  This belief is evidenced in the different classifications of murder. Yet, legislatures break with this idea when it comes to the felony murder rule, and allow accidental killings to be punished as severely as intentional, premeditated killings.
The following states have abandoned the felony murder rule altogether:
The following states either provide an affirmative defense to the felony murder rule or limit it’s scope of liability to:
* Scope of liability is limited
** Provides an affirmative defense
*** (Requires the defendant to knowingly cause the death in the commission of the felony)
The following states maintain the felony muder rule without any limitations on its scope of liability.
District of Columbia*
New Mexico *
North Carolina *
Rhode Island *
South Dakota *
* Felony murder is first degree murder in these states
** Felony murder is second degree murder in these states
*** There is a new senate bill, SB 478 (2021) to limit the scope of liability in Florida.
State v. Harrison, 914 N.W.2d 178, 185 (Iowa 2018).
United States v. Whitfield, 695 F.3d 288, 294 (4th Cir. 2012).
Forward v. McNeil, (N.D. Fla. 2008)
MODEL PENAL CODE § 210.2 commentary at 31 n.74 (1980)
At common law, offenses that were mala in se, (meaning they are bad or immoral) were classified as felonies.
MODEL PENAL CODE § 210.2 commentary at 31 n.74 (1980)
H. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility 162 (1968).