The Marshall Project published an article last week describing the “paradox of ‘felony murder’ laws,” which allow defendants to be convicted of murder “if a death occurs because of a felony they commit, even if they were not the direct killer.” While much of the article focused on this aspect of felony-murder, it also mentioned that, in some states, driving while impaired by a repeat offender that results in the death of someone other than the driver can support charges of felony murder. That’s not so in North Carolina.
State v. Jones. The North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000), that commission of a felony that required mere culpable negligence on the part of a defendant rather than actual intent could not support charges of felony murder.
Facts. The defendant in Jones was indicted in 1996 for first degree murder for the deaths of two Wake Forest University students who died after he crashed his car into the vehicle in which they were riding. Three other students riding in the vehicle into which Jones crashed were seriously injured. He was charged with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury for causing their injuries, and also was charged with driving while impaired.
Shortly before the fatal crash, the defendant repeatedly bumped his car into a car in front of him that was stopped at a red light. The defendant cursed at the other driver and told him to get out of the way. When the light changed, the defendant sped around the other car. The defendant then ran his car onto a curb, knocking a hub cap off.
The defendant was speeding down a Winston-Salem road when the students’ vehicle approached from the opposite direction. As the students’ car rounded a curve, the defendant crossed into their lane. The driver of the students’ car turned left into defendant’s lane to attempt to avoid the crash. The defendant moved back into his lane and crashed into the side of the other vehicle.
The defendant’s blood was analyzed after the crash and was determined to have an alcohol concentration of 0.04. The drugs Butalbital, Alprazlam and Oxycodone also were detected in his blood. An expert for the State testified that the combination of controlled substances and alcohol caused the defendant to be appreciably impaired.
The defendant had been convicted of DWI four years earlier, and had a pending DWI charge at the time of the crash.
The trial. The jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. He was also convicted of the three counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and of DWI. After a capital sentencing hearing, the jury recommended a sentence of life without parole on the first-degree murder charges, and the trial court entered judgments in accordance with that recommendation.
The appeal. The defendant appealed, principally arguing that he was improperly convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. The court of appeals affirmed, but the state supreme court reversed.
History. The state supreme court noted that felony murder had been codified as a category of first-degree murder since 1893, and had existed in its current form since 1977. The court explained that “[w]hen a killing is committed in the perpetration of an enumerated felony (arson, rape, etc.) or other felony committed with the use of a deadly weapon, murder in the first degree is established irrespective of premeditation or deliberation or malice aforethought.” Id. at 164 (internal quotations omitted). Furthermore, the court stated, “intent to kill is not an element of felony murder.” Id.
Mens rea. The mens rea requirement for the underlying felony upon which the felony murder charges in Jones were predicated—assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury—is either actual intent to inflict injury or culpable negligence from which such intent may be implied. Culpable (or criminal) negligence is recklessness or carelessness that demonstrates a thoughtless disregard of consequences or a heedless indifference to the safety and rights of others. It also exists when a person intentionally, willfully or wantonly violates a statute designed for the protection of human life and limb. Commission of impaired driving in violation of G.S. 20-138.1 constitutes culpable negligence as a matter of law.
Culpable negligence cannot supply intent for capital murder. The N.C. Supreme Court reasoned that the three then-existing types of first degree murder all required actual intent to commit the act that formed the basis of the charge. The first category required willful deliberation and premeditation. The second category required actual intent to poison, imprison, starve, or torture the victim or to lie in wait. Felony murder, explained the court, operates similarly. Each of the enumerated felonies requires actual intent on the part of the perpetrator. And previously reported cases involving felony murder convictions predicated on other felonies committed or attempted with the use of a deadly weapon all involved proof that the defendant intended to commit the acts constituting the underlying felony.
Moreover, the court noted that nothing in G.S. 14-17 suggested that the legislature intended that first-degree murder could be based on implied intent. Indeed, the legislature’s enactment of the crime of felony death by vehicle (which occurs when a person drives while impaired and proximately causes the death of another) indicates that “just the opposite is true for homicides resulting from impaired or negligent drivers.” Id. at 169-70 (further stating that “[i]t is apparent that the General Assembly has demonstrated its belief that the conduct described, though egregious and deserving of severe punishment, does not warrant the severity of sanctions concomitant with felony murder.”)
Finally, the court illustrated the unjust results that could follow from predicating felony murder on implied intent. A driver, driving with criminal negligence, who hits another car containing only its driver, killing the driver, could be convicted, at most, of second degree murder, while a driver with the same state of mind who crashes into another car and kills its driver and injures a passenger could be convicted of first-degree murder. And a mother, late for a PTA meeting, who weaves through traffic driving 80 mph in a 55 mph zone who causes a crash that kills another driver and injures his passenger could be tried for capital murder. The court opined that these results were not intended by the legislature when it amended the State’s murder statute in 1977.
Outcome. The court reversed the defendant’s first-degree murder convictions and remanded the case for a new trial, noting that there was ample evidence to support a charge of second-degree murder.