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48 States Allow Life 'Felony Murder' Terms For People Who Didn't Kill

“Felony murder” laws hold people liable for murder if they participated in a felony, such as a robbery, that resulted in someone’s death. These laws impose sentences on people who neither intended to kill nor anticipated a death, and even on some who did not participate in the killing. In a new report, the Sentencing Project contends that such laws "violate the principle of proportional sentencing, which is supposed to punish crimes based on their severity. These excessively punitive outcomes violate widely shared perceptions of justice." With one in seven people in U.S. prisons serving a life sentence, ending mass incarceration requires reducing prison terms such as those prescribed for felony murder, says the project, which argues that the statutes "run counter to public safety, fiscal responsibility, and justice."

Although many other countries have rejected the felony murder doctrine, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government still use them. The only two states without felony murder laws are Hawaii and Kentucky. Six other states require some proof of intentionality regarding the killing to consider it murder, though the use of a gun—or mere knowledge of a co-defendant’s gun use—satisfies this requirement in some places. An example: In San Joaquin County, Ca., in 2010, 19-year-old Emmanuel Mendoza helped lure a robbery victim to a location where a masked accomplice waited with a firearm. In a struggle, Mendoza’s accomplice fired a fatal shot. Although Mendoza did not have a weapon and the killing had not been planned, he was convicted of felony murder and automatically sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). In Pennsylvania and Michigan, one quarter of people serving LWOP were convicted of felony murder—over 1,000 people in each state. Since 1980, Michigan has required a minimum culpable mental state of wanton disregard for life for felony murder convictions. Despite this reform, the number of Michiganders imprisoned for felony murder is comparable to that of Pennsylvania, where there is no such requirement.

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