Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Massachusetts High Court Narrows Scope of Felony-Murder

Under Massachusetts law, a person can be charged with “felony murder” if someone is killed during the commission of a felony. Felony murder is a first-degree murder in the Commonwealth, and all coconspirators who helped with the commission of the felony can be charged with felony-murder. That means that if four people agree to rob a bank in Boston and then, while robbing the bank, one of the robbers fatally shoots a bank teller, then all four of the robbers will be charged with felony murder.

A new ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth, however, appears to narrow that long-held rule on imputed liability. In Commonwealth vs. Brown, the defendant Brown helped plan a 2009 home invasion by providing guns and sweatshirts for his co-conspirators to conceal their identities. While Brown knew the home invasion was going to happen and even assisted in perpetuating the crime, he was not actually present at the home invasion where one of his co-conspirators killed someone in the house during the commission of the crime.

The Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers representing Brown argued that second-degree murder would be more appropriate for a participant “on the ‘remote outer fringes’ of an armed home invasion.” Under Massachusetts criminal law, a conviction for first-degree murder carries the maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Second-degree murder, on the other hand, carries the possibility of parole after only 15 years of incarceration. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed with the criminal defense lawyers representing Brown and reduced his charges from first-degree murder to second-degree murder in the interest of justice.

As noted by the Boston Globe, this is the first time Massachusetts has changed its felony murder law since the Civil War. Going forward, prosecutors seeking a first-degree murder conviction for felony murder will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the co-conspirator intended to kill someone or knew his or her actions would likely result in the death of another person. The majority of the Court held that its holding in the felony-murder case will not be retroactive and will only apply “in trials that commence after the date of the opinion in this case.”

The ruling by the highest court in the Commonwealth will have implications for criminal law and anyone accused of felony-murder – especially when the co-conspirator was not the shooter, or the death was an unforeseeable and unintended consequence of the felony. As noted by the Supreme Judicial Court, in reforming the felony murder law, Massachusetts joins Michigan, Hawaii, and Kentucky in reforming the common law crime.

The decision marks a landmark ruling that changes a law that has not been altered in centuries and highlights the importance of a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney who stays up-to-date with recent developments in criminal law. If you have been charged with a crime, then you should contact a criminal law attorney in Massachusetts who is knowledgeable and up-to-date on Massachusetts criminal law to ensure you receive the best defense possible.