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Can Shoplifting Lead to a Murder Charge?

Murder typically refers to the intentional killing of another person. But it is possible to be convicted of murder in Texas even if you did not intend to kill the victim–or for that matter, even if you did not commit the act that resulted in the victim’s death.

Texas recognizes a separate category of murder commonly known as “felony murder.” Basically, if you commit (or attempt to commit) one felony, and in the process someone dies, you can be charged and tried for murder. It does not matter whether you intended to harm or kill the victim. For example, if a defendant commits an armed robbery and, in a moment of panic, shoots and kills someone, that would be considered felony murder.

Houston Woman Sentenced to 35 Years Following Fatal Accident

But what about a case where someone is part of the original felony but did not participate in the actual killing? A Houston appeals court recently addressed such a case. Here, the original felony was shoplifting. The defendant and two of her friends agreed to steal a bunch of clothes from a department store. The defendant and one friend committed the actual theft, while the second friend served as the “getaway driver.”

In the course of subsequently evading the police, the defendant’s friend ran a red light, doing over 60 miles per hour, and hit a vehicle containing a mother and her three children. The mother died as a result.

Houston prosecutors charged the defendant with felony murder, even though she was not driving the car that killed the victim. Prosecutors argued the driver was acting “in furtherance of a conspiracy” between the three women to commit felony theft. As a result, all three defendants were equally liable for the victim’s death. A jury agreed and found the defendant guilty.

A Texas appeals court affirmed the verdict. Among other things, the court noted that the defendant and her partner shoplifted $2,200 worth of clothes. In Texas, shoplifting is classified as a state jail felony once the value of the stolen merchandise exceeds $1,500.

In other words, had the defendant shoplifted some less valuable clothes, she might not have faced a felony murder conviction–and the resulting 35-year prison sentence.

Do Not Speak to the Police Without a Galveston Criminal Defense Lawyer

Another issue that came up in the defendant’s appeal was her confession to the police. While in the hospital following the car accident, a police officer started questioning the defendant without advising her of her constitutional rights to remain silent and speak with an attorney. The officer later admitted in court that he “messed up,” and then advised the defendant of her rights before resuming questioning, during which she admitted to participating in the theft. The appeals court said the trial judge “did not commit clear error” in allowing the jury to hear the defendant’s confession in spite of the officer’s “mistake.”

Anytime you are questioned by the police as part of an official investigation, you should contact a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney. Your ignorance of the law, especially with regard to felony murder, can prove devastating. Call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need immediate legal assistance.