SJC Update: Court Narrows Felony-Murder Rule

It’s been a while since we checked in with updates from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), so when a landmark decision came out this week, changing the rules for felony-murder for first time since the Civil War, we thought this warranted a closer look.

Just yesterday, the SJC announced its decision in Commonwealth vs. Timothy Brown, related to the scope of criminal liability under the common-law felony-murder rule, which “imposes criminal liability for homicide on all participants in a certain common criminal enterprise if a death occurred in the course of that enterprise.”

Justice Frank M. Gaziano, who drafted the decision, stated that “a unanimous court concludes that the felony-rule is constitutional” but that a “majority of Justices, through the concurrence of Chief Justice Gants … hold that, in trials that commence after the date of the opinion in this case, a defendant may not be convicted of murder without proof of one of the three prongs of malice.” This means that felony-murder will no longer be an independent theory of liability for murder and will instead be “limited to its statutory role under G.L.c. 265, Section 1, as an aggravating element of murder, permitting a jury to find a defendant guilty of murder in the first degree where the murder was committed in the course of a felony punishable by life imprisonment even if it was not committed with deliberate premeditation or with extreme atrocity or cruelty.”

The Court addressed the issue in the case of defendant Timothy Brown, who was charged in relation to an attempted armed robbery and home invasion in Lowell, where two armed gunmen fatally shot brothers Hector and Tony Delgado in 2009. The Defendant was not present at the scene when the shooting occurred. The prosecutors in the case argued that Brown was liable as an accomplice to felony-murder, because he provided hooded sweatshirts to help conceal their identities and a pistol to one of the gunmen. Brown was convicted by a jury on two counts of felony-murder in the first degree arising from the predicate felonies of attempted commission of armed robbery, home invasion, and unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.

In an appeal filed this year, the defendant raised a number of claims, including that the Commonwealth introduced insufficient evidence to prove that he was a knowing participant in the felony-murders and that various errors by the judge and prosecution warranted reversal or a new trial. In addition, the appeal including arguments that the felony-murder rule should be abolished and that a new trial should be ordered under the Court’s extraordinary authority pursuant to G.L. c. 278, Section 33E, which states that the SJC shall review any first-degree murder conviction and “may, if satisfied that the verdict was against the law or the weight of the evidence, or because of newly discovered evidence, or for any other reason that justice may require (a) order a new trial or (b) direct the entry of a verdict of a lesser degree of guilt, and remand the case to the superior court for the imposition of sentence. ”

The Court first held that the Commonwealth did introduce sufficient evidence and that the defendant’s other challenges did not raise error warranting reversal or a new trial as to any of the underlying convictions.

In relation to the defendant’s argument that the felony-murder rule should be abolished, the Court unanimously rejected the argument that the felony-murder rule is arbitrary and unjust in because it is contrary to the fundamental notion that an individual is culpable for his or her own misconduct, in violation of Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Court pointed to their consistent rejection of arguments in the past that the rule is unconstitutional, noting that there was no reason to deviate from their decisions to that effect in Commonwealth v. Watkins (1978) and Commonwealth v. Moran(1982).

The Court also found, after reviewing the record pursuant to their authority under G.L. c. 278, Section 33E, the verdicts of felony-murder were not contrary to joint venture felony-murder jurisprudence or against the weight of the evidence, so as to warrant a new trial.  However, the Court did hold that  “in the circumstances of this case…pursuant to our authority under G.L. c. 278, Section 33E, the interests of justice require that the degree of guilt be reduced to that of murder in the second degree,” coming to this conclusion after finding that the defendant’s involvement was on the “remote outer fringes” of the joint venture.

This ruling has significant consequences for Timothy Brown, of course. He was previously sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, based on the first degree murder charges. Now, however, since that sentence is vacated and the case is remanded back to the superior court for sentencing under the second-degree murder verdict, he will be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.

However, the decision, as a result of the concurrences, is also hugely significant for criminal law in the Commonwealth.  The Court declined to apply its ruling retrospectively, so it will have no effect on past convictions under the felony-murder rule.  But in the future, the Court provided that “the scope of felony-murder liability should be … narrowed, and … in trials that commence after the date of the opinion in this case, a defendant may not be convicted of murder without proof of one of the three prongs of malice.”

Defense attorneys hailed this decision.  Those who handle murder cases have long been troubled by the possibility that an injustice can result from application of the felony-murder where a defendant never intended to use violence.  They note that the judge in such a case can always impose a harsher sentence for the underlying offense when death results, but a mandatory life sentence for felony-murder is often unwarranted.  The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) released a statement citing an amicus brief it had filed in a pending case, Commonwealth v. Morin, which had advanced an argument for the abolition of felony-murder.

The Boston Herald quoted appellate attorney Joe Schneiderman saying, “It is a very established rule, and a general principle of criminal law, that we punish someone for having a guilty mind with a guilty act.  Felony murder is unusual because the guilty act shows a guilty mind. The SJC has successfully untangled that issue.”

According to the Boston Globe — which noted that Michigan, Hawaii, and Kentucky had similarly revised their felony-murder laws — Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz released a statement saying, “As pointed out by Justice Gaziano, the decision unfairly diminishes the seriousness of violent felonies that result in the deaths of innocent victims.”  There may be major ramifications of this ruling for how homicides are prosecuted in the Commonwealth.

In addition, court-watchers took note of the split ruling — with Chief Justice Gants, and Justices Lenk, Hines, and Budd forming a narrow majority in favor of the new felony-murder rule — and wonder whether it portends a division in upcoming criminal cases.  Since the argument was held in this case, Justice Geraldine Hines has retired, replaced by former Appeals Court Chief Justice Scott Kafker.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association