By Matt Shepherd
The current law in Missouri makes killing someone while perpetrating a felony or fleeing from the perpetration of a felony a crime known as “Second-Degree Felony Murder”. This crime is punishable by 10 years to life in prison in addition to whatever sentence is given for the actual felony committed. This seems reasonable at first, but in practice presents a great divergence between the law and morality. The problem with the “felony murder” charge is that no criminal intent is necessary for the actual murder. Killings that would otherwise be classified as second-degree involuntary manslaughter at worst can carry severe, life-ruining punishments because of the “felony murder” charge.
Take the case of a man soberly driving with 35 grams of marijuana. He hits a patch of ice and his car veers into the middle of the road, fatally wounding another driver. Because he was in the act of committing a felony and killed someone, he can now be charged with felony murder. It does not matter that the felony marijuana possession had nothing to do with the accident. Felony murder does not require the felony to be related to the actual killing in any way. Under Missouri law, this man can potentially receive a life sentence.
In Colenberg v. Missouri, Colenberg was charged with felony murder for a hit and run he committed with a stolen car. The car had been stolen years before and the act of stealing the car had nothing to do with the hit and run incident. Admittedly, the details of this case reveal that Colenberg was no boy scout and far less deserving of sympathy than the man in the hypothetical marijuana instance. Nevertheless, serious questions must be asked when our justice system severely punishes people who do not have a culpable mens rea or mental state to commit a crime.
Many felonies are serious offenses, especially when people die as a result of those who commit them. However, it is undeniably barbaric to lock felony offenders up and throw away the key using the trumped up charge of felony murder. When there is no link between a felony and a death or any criminal intent that lead to the death, it goes against the fundamental principles of our justice system to employ the charge of felony murder.