I can’t be the only person who was surprised to learn in my first year of law school that a person who never intended to kill someone else could be convicted of first degree murder. Even an accidental killing can result in first-degree murder charges if it occurs during the commission of a dangerous felony. The classic example of this theory of murder, known as felony murder, is the defendant who agrees to serve as get-away driver while his friends rob a business. Once inside the business, one of the robbers brandishes a gun. The owner of the business, who is confronted by one of the robbers, suffers a heart attack and dies. The defendant and his co-conspirators all are prosecuted for and convicted of first-degree murder based on the felony murder rule. See People v. Stamp, 82 Cal. Rptr. 598 (Cal. Ct. App. 1969).
Today’s post will review the basics of North Carolina’s felony murder rule. Next week’s post will explore recent developments regarding when the so-called merger rule may apply to bar charges of felony murder that arise from a single assault that injures and kills a single victim.