On March 2, 2023, the Judiciary Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates heard testimony regarding the felony murder rule and a proposal to change state law so that it would not apply to a defendant under the age of 25. Ordinarily, the prosecution must prove that a defendant intentionally killed someone in order to convict them of murder. But the felony murder rule, which Maryland and most other states have adopted, allows the prosecutor to prove only that the defendant intended to be involved in another felony, such as robbery or arson and that involvement is regarded as supplying the “intent” for a murder conviction.  

The felony murder rule arose in England and was carried over into the common law adopted by Maryland. At that time, there were fewer felonies, and for many years, the only penalty for a felony was death. Criminal law has become much more finely tuned in the ensuing years, so that the law recognizes distinctions about crimes committed with a gun or other deadly weapon as well as varying degrees of involvement in planning, aiding, or actively carrying out a crime.  In a criminal case, a defendant is frequently charged with multiple offenses, each based on some detail of the crime, and a jury may convict someone of any combination of the offenses. Two of the witnesses in support of the bill had served as jurors in cases where they were instructed to apply the felony murder rule, and they felt that it was wrong to ask citizen jurors to apply an unjust rule.

In the most extreme example cited by one witness before the committee, if two people commit a robbery and one of them shoots someone, both can be tried for murder even though only one of them pulled the trigger. Although this makes it easier for prosecutors to secure harsh sentences for crimes whenever a death occurs, it has long been criticized by legal scholars who argue that it violates the general principle that you are held accountable only for intentional conduct.

The bill under consideration by the Judiciary Committee, HB 1180, the Youth Accountability and Safety Act, would exempt defendants under the age of 25 from the felony murder rule. They could still be convicted of the felony that they actually committed, but they could not be convicted of murder without proof that they intentionally killed the victim.

The League of Women Voters of Maryland does not have a position explicitly addressing the felony murder rule, so we are not able to support or oppose the measure. Nevertheless, it raises such important questions about fairness in Maryland’s criminal justice system that we are bringing this information to our readers.