Illinois’ Felony Murder Rule: You Don’t Have to Kill to Face Charges
According to the Chicago police, overall crime in Chicago is on the decline. Except when you’re talking about homicides and shootings.
According to their reports, homicides were up 41 percent in February 2020 over the same month in 2019. It’s simply a fact of life that in Chicago, homicide touches the lives of many people.
These grim statistics also shed light on Illinois’ felony murder rule. This controversial murder rule may have people facing murder charges that never even pulled a trigger. Why is that?
Here’s what you need to know about the felony murder rule in Illinois and how it may impact how homicides are charged.
Felony Murder in IL: What Is It?
In the state of Illinois, a death qualifies as a first-degree murder if the suspect:
- Knew their actions could cause great bodily harm
- Intended to cause bodily harm to the victim or kill them
- Were attempting to commit or committing a forcible felony other than second-degree murder
That last condition is what is called the “felony murder rule.” It spells out how a person who commits a violent crime can be charged with first-degree murder without the requirement to prove they ever intended to hurt the victim. Basically, it elevates deaths that occur during the commission of another felony as a murder.
The felony murder rule is meant to deter dangerous felonies, but many critics argue that it’s an unjust rule because it doesn’t require an intent to kill to be proven in order for someone to be convicted of felony murder.
How Illinois Applies the Rule
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this rule because it’s got a fairly broad application in criminal cases.
The way Illinois interprets this law means that it follows what is called the proximate cause theory. That theory states that felons are accountable for any probable deaths that may occur during a felony or attempted felony.
So yes, you can be charged with first-degree murder even if you don’t mean to kill anyone but are still involved in crimes listed as forcible felonies. That can result in a conviction and ultimate death sentence if other aggravating factors are involved in the case.
Does the Rule Include All Felonies in Illinois?
In the modern legal system, laws differentiate between serious felonies, inherently dangerous felonies, and all others. First-degree murder applies to death that occurs during inherently dangerous felonies while second-degree murder applies to serious felonies only.
The term “inherently dangerous” is a bit of an abstract term, but if there’s a substantial likelihood that a death will result due to the very nature of the crime, then that crime is considered an inherently dangerous one by many courts.
Still, other courts can examine the facts on a case-by-case basis to determine if a crime was fundamentally dangerous or not and whether a death stemming from them could be considered first- or second-degree murder.
Are There Limits to the Illinois Rule?
There are a couple of scenarios that limit the Illinois felony murder rule. For example, there is usually a time and distance limit when a death occurs. This period of time generally starts when the defendant’s actions have progressed to the point where they could be charged with an attempted felony and will last until the defendant reached a point of apparent safety.
A great example of the time component is this: A criminal makes his getaway from the scene of the crime and someone is killed during that getaway. That scenario would set the defendant up for the felony murder rule.
How Does IL Handle Deaths Caused by People Who Aren’t Committing Felonies?
When a felony such as a robbery or assault is committed and the target of that crime fights back and kills is assailant, does that expose them to the felony murder rule in Illinois? After all, these deaths can occur during the commission of a felony.
The key is that death in this scenario did not occur in the furtherance of a felony. Many courts will not charge the target, or a bystander or police officer, with felony murder. This is a limit that applies only to non-felons. If the accomplice of the defendant commits the murder, then they are exposed to the felony murder rule.
With such high stakes, any time there is a question of a defendant being charged with felony murder, a good criminal defense lawyer is a must-have to protect everyone’s rights and ensure proper justice is done.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and domestic violence to retail theft-related crimes, murder, and drug crimes.