Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Defendant Cannot be Convicted of Felony Murder for Accomplice’s Death

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reaffirmed a longstanding principle that a defendant cannot be convicted of felony murder when his accomplice is killed during the commission of the underlying felony.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Tejeda.

In January of 2012, the defendant and two friends made plans to purchase half a pound of marijuana from two drug dealers.  The defendant drove to Dorchester and waited in the car while his friends went into the basement of a residence to pick up the marijuana.  The dealers weighed and packaged the marijuana and during the transfer, one of the defendant’s friends took out a gun and prepared to rob the dealers.  In response, one of the dealers also took out a gun and the men fired shots at one another.  The defendant’s other friend (the friend who wasn’t armed) was hit in the chest by a bullet.

The shooting victim collapsed in the basement.  The defendant went inside and tried to carry the victim back to his car, but the victim was too heavy.  The defendant fled the scene but used the victim’s phone to call 911 to report the shooting.  An ambulance transported the victim to a Boston hospital, where he was pronounced dead.  Video surveillance captured the defendant’s involvement and the defendant was indicted and charged with felony murder.

The felony murder rule states a person can be convicted of murder if: (1) during the commission of a felony, the defendant kills another person (even if by accident); or (2) during the commission of a felony, one of the defendant’s accomplices kills someone in furtherance of the crime.  It’s a type of murder that does not require the defendant to have an intent to kill.  The question in this case was whether the defendant could be charged with felony murder when it was his accomplice (and not an innocent third party) who was killed during the gun fight.  A superior court judge ruled that in these circumstances, the defendant could not be convicted of murder.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the superior court judge’s ruling.

The Court noted that in Massachusetts, it has never been the case that a third party’s conduct that resulted in death could be the basis for a murder conviction.  The defendant needs either to perform the act causing death himself, or the act needs to be committed by the defendant’s accomplice.  The Commonwealth urged the Supreme Judicial Court to expand the felony murder rule to allow for murder convictions when the underlying felony being committed by the defendant and his accomplices “proximately caused” the death.  Therefore, if it was reasonably foreseeable that death would result from the defendant’s (and his accomplices’) criminal behavior, and another person actually died, the defendant could be convicted of murder.

The Court declined to change the definition of felony murder in Massachusetts.  The Court ruled that a defendant should be responsible only for his own conduct and that of his accomplices, and only for those actions that advanced the goal of the crime.  The Commonwealth complained that in cases like this, the current definition of felony murder meant nobody would be convicted of murder.  The Court agreed with the analysis, but noted that “a tragic death does not always justify a murder conviction.”

People who decide to engage in felonious behavior with accomplices are putting themselves at incredible risk, because it’s one of the few situations where criminal liability can result from the bad conduct of someone else.  If you are under investigation for committing a felony, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney.