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Intent and the Felony-Murder Rule in Texas

A common issue in criminal defense law is addressing the issue of “intent.” For example, if a defendant accidentally killed the victim as the result of a negligent act, that is considered manslaughter. But if the killing was an intentional act, then it is murder.

Texas law, however, contains an important loophole that prosecutors are generally quick to exploit: the felony-murder rule. Basically, if the defendant intended to commit another crime that accidentally resulted in someone’s death, it is treated as murder, even if the defendant never intended to kill anyone.

A textbook example of felony murder is the bank robbery gone wrong. Say the defendant enters a bank, points a gun at the teller, and demands she give him money. In the course of the robbery the defendant panics and accidentally fires his gun, killing the teller. This would qualify as felony murder, despite the fact the defendant’s motive was robbery not homicide.

Houston Justices Question Legal End-Run Around Manslaughter Law

While the felony-murder rule may make sense in the context of a bank robbery, it becomes more problematic when the underlying felony is the same act that led to the victim’s death. Take the case of aggravated assault. Say you point a gun at someone, perhaps out of self-defense, and the weapon accidentally discharges. Can prosecutors invoke the felony-murder rule citing “aggravated assault”–i.e., using or exhibiting or using a deadly weapon to threaten bodily injury–as the predicate offense?

Under current Texas law, the answer is yes. And some judges are not comfortable with that. Recently, two appellate judges in Houston wrote to express their concerns about the application of the felony-murder rule in aggravated assault cases.

The context was a Galveston woman’s prior conviction for murder following a domestic violence incident. The defendant’s boyfriend was beating her daughter. The defendant called 911, but before the police could arrive, she grabbed the boyfriend’s gun–which she thought was unloaded–and pointed it at him. Apparently, there was still one bullet in the gun and during an ensuing struggled, the weapon discharged, killing the boyfriend.

A grand jury subsequently indicted the defendant for murder. At trial, the judge instructed the jury on three possible legal theories to find the defendant guilty, including the felony-murder rule. Essentially, the act of pointing the gun at the boyfriend was the predicate felony.

The jury found the defendant guilty. A three-judge panel of Texas 1st District Court of Appeals in Houston affirmed the conviction in a September 2017 opinion. The defendant then asked the full nine-judge court to rehear the case. That motion was denied on January 25 of this year. But two judges wrote separately to express their concern with the current state of the felony-murder rule.

Justice Terry Jennings wrote the aggravated assault charge here was really a “cleverly disguised form of manslaughter.” And manslaughter cannot be a predicate to felony murder, as that would defeat the purpose of the manslaughter statute. Unfortunately, Jennings said, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has previously held aggravated assault may be used as a predicate felony, and the 1st District is bound by that “unsound precedent.”

In a second opinion, Justice Russell Lloyd said using aggravated assault as a predicate felony eliminates the need for prosecutors to prove “intent,” which is normally a critical element of a murder charge. Lloyd said the “misuse of the felony murder doctrine” in cases like this ultimately undermines the rights of defendants. But Lloyd agreed with Justice Jennings that the Court of Criminal Appeals has tied its hands on this issue.

Speak With a Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Houston-area prosecutors will use every legal tool at their disposal to ensure a defendant is convicted and receives the maximum possible sentence under law. This is why it is imperative to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney whenever you are charged with any serious felony. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City at (281) 280-0100 today if you need immediate legal assistance.