Under California law, a defendant who kills another while engaged in certain specified felony crimes, such as robbery or burglary, can be found to have committed first-degree murder under the “felony-murder” rule.
However, what if there is a significant amount of time or distance between the felony and the death? Should the defendant still be charged with felony murder? The California Supreme Court case of People v. Wilkins explored this issue.
A burglary and a car accident . . . lead to murder charges
The defendant allegedly burglarized a home under construction, taking a number of large appliances. The defendant was driving a pickup truck near Anaheim with the appliances in the back and the tailgate down.
A stove fell off the truck on the freeway, and another motorist flagged the defendant down. After a verbal altercation, the defendant realized the stove had fallen off the truck. The defendant left the scene, but the stove on the freeway caused a fatal vehicle accident when another driver swerved to avoid the stove a few minutes later.
Although cell phone records placed the defendant in the vicinity of the incidents, there was no direct evidence of when the burglary had occurred. According to the defendant, he had bought the appliances from a third party, and had made several stops along the way prior to the accident.
The defendant was convicted of first-degree felony murder, on the basis that the traffic accident victim was killed during the commission of the burglary. The defendant appealed.
Was the accident part of a continuous transaction?
The California Supreme Court noted that, under the felony-murder rule, a strict relationship in cause or in time between the felony and the murder is not required. However, the felony and murder must be part of “one continuous transaction.” This is often referred to as the “escape rule” principle, since flight from a felony may be considered part of the same transaction. At trial, the defendant sought a jury instruction on the escape rule, but the court refused.
Felony-murder liability includes the flight from the scene, until the perpetrator reaches a place of temporary safety. Here, the defendant asked for a jury instruction on the escape rule, and there was evidence supporting that request. There was no direct evidence of the time of the burglary, and the defendant had alleged he had made a number of stops, including a stop at a friend’s house, prior to the accident. Even under the prosecution’s theory of the case, the defendant was more than 60 miles from the burglary when the stove fell from the truck and had been driving without haste for nearly 60 minutes.
Therefore, the failure to give the jury instruction was error and the defendant’s criminal conviction of first-degree murder was reversed and remanded to the lower court.
Penalties between degrees of murder vary greatly
If you are accused of a serious crime such as murder or manslaughter, it is crucial that you immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. It is likely the prosecutor will charge you with the highest degree of murder possible, and the penalties between degrees vary greatly. Seek an attorney with an outstanding record of successful criminal defense representation in felony cases to handle your case.