Felony Murder: Limits of Agency

Under the felony murder rule, a death that occurs as the proximate result of the commission or attempted commission of another qualifying crime (robbery, kidnapping, felony involving use of a deadly weapon, and others) constitutes first-degree murder, even in the absence of premeditation and deliberation. See G.S. 14-17(a). Shea Denning wrote a great summary of the basic law on felony murder here, and she tackled the confusing merger doctrine here.

But one topic we haven’t yet covered on this blog is the issue of agency. Under North Carolina’s felony murder law, a defendant can only be held responsible for a death that was caused by himself or an accomplice to the crime, not by an adversary such as a police officer who shoots back. Recently, I was confronted with a couple interesting questions about this rule.

First, why is that the rule, and does it have to be?

Second, how does it apply to situations such as when an innocent bystander is killed by a stray bullet that could have come from either an accomplice or an adversary?

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