Felony-Murder and the Case of Annie Le

by Jamison Koehler on January 27, 2010

Douglas Healey/AP Photo

A loyal reader (okay, it’s my brother-in-law George) has asked me to explain the difference between murder and felony-murder.  George learned of the distinction while reading about yesterday’s not guilty plea in the Yale graduate student murder case.  For those of you who are not familiar with the case, Raymond Clark III was charged last week in connection the murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le.  Le’s body was found stuffed behind a wall of the Yale research lab where both Clark and Le worked, Clark as a laboratory technician and Ye as a graduate student.

A homicide is a killing by one person of another.  “Justifiable” or “excusable” homicides would include those authorized by law or for which there was a defense to criminal liability (for example, self-defense).  “Criminal” homicide would cover every other situation. Criminal homicides were traditionally sub-divided into three different offenses:  murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.

Murder was defined at common law as the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought. Malice suggests ill will and “wickedness of heart.”  Aforethought suggests premediation and deliberation.

“Malice aforethought” required that the defendant either:  (1) intended to kill (express malice); (2) intended to inflict great bodily injury; (3) possessed reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life (that is, demonstrated an “abandoned and malignant heart”); or (4) intended to commit a felony – thus, the “felony-murder” rule as described in greater detail below.

Just to dispose quickly of the other two forms of criminal homicide:  Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing distinguishable from murder by the existence of adequate provocation.  This, for example, is the husband returning home to find his wife in bed with his best friend who, in a moment of sudden and intense passion without any time to reflect, kills both of them.  He is still guilty but to a lesser degree of culpability.

Involuntary manslaughter was generally defined as death caused by criminal negligence.  That is, while the defendant did not actually intend to kill the victim, his failure to exercise the appropriate degree of care still renders him criminally liable, albeit to a lesser extent than for, example, deliberate and premeditated murder.

Modern statutes tend to differentiate among “degrees” of murder. While I am not familiar with Connecticut law, most states consider “deliberate and premeditated killings” as first degree murder, with every other form of criminal homicide second (or in some cases third) degree murder.

How does all of that apply here?  First, Clark has been charged with first degree murder.  Assuming the prosecution can prove that Clark was in fact the person who killed Le, it will then need to prove that Clark’s killing of Le was premeditated and deliberate.  According to some reports, Clark was irritated by Le’s “flouting” of the lab’s rules and procedures.  Other people suggest that Clark and Le may have been romantically involved and that Clark was upset by Le’s pending marriage. Whatever the motivation, even a moment of reflection could suffice if it provided Clark with adequate time to form the requisite intent.

Alternatively, if the evidence established that the killing was the result of a lover’s quarrel and a verbal fight that turned physical, the prosecution might have to settle for a lesser degree of criminal homicide.

What is interesting about this case (and this gets to George’s question) is that the prosecution recently added the charge of felony-murder.  Felony-murder is defined as the killing of another person during the commission of a dangerous felony, such as rape, arson, kidnapping or robbery.  In order to secure a conviction under the felony-murder rule, the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant actually intended to kill the victim, only that the death was the foreseeable result of the commission of a dangerous felony.  In a sense, the prosecution is able to “piggyback” on the “malice aforethought” demonstrated by the defendant in committing the dangerous felony to prove the malicious state of mind needed to secure a murder conviction.

That felony-murder has been added to Clark’s charge suggests that there is much more to the case than we are reading about in the media.  I imagine, for example, that we will soon learn of evidence that Le’s murder was committed in connection with rape, attempted rape, or robbery.

13 Comments on “Felony-Murder and the Case of Annie Le

  1. I hope George was able to understand that. I wrote slowly, and I tried to use words even a person with a Ph.D could understand. As George’s daughter once said about him: “Yes, my father is a doctor but he’s not the kind of doctor who helps people.”

  2. Outstanding summary for the layperson — thank you, Jamison! Now, back to not helping people.

  3. Thank you for the great explanation of the legal definitions of murder. Do you think its possible that the felony in question is kidnapping. Perhaps Clark forcible moved Le to a different area of the lab, i.e. where he ultimately sealed her inside the wall, while she was still alive. Would that constitute a kidnapping charge? I hope that is not the case.

    Thanks for your time.

  4. In law school, we learned a mnemonic for remembering the “dangerous felonies” necessary to support a felony-murder charge: BARK, which stands for Burglary, Arson, Robbery and Kidnapping. So yes, kidnapping could serve as the underlying felony.

    Kidnapping was originally defined at common law as the forcible asportation of the victim to another country. The asportation doesn’t need to be so extensive under modern law. So yes, under the circumstances you describe, that could be kidnapping.

  5. Another question, Jamison. Is it possible the felony in question was simple assault and battery. Is assault and battery considered a “dangerous felony.” In other words, Clark physically attacked Annie, and in doing so killed her. Thus, the physical beating was assault and battery that directly lead to her murder. Perhaps it’s as simple as that? Thanks.

  6. Again, I am not familiar with the Connecticut law that will govern this case. However, simple assault and battery are traditionally misdemeanors and thus would not qualify as the underlying felony. If it was a more serious form of assault, such as aggravated assault, then you are getting close to two forms of “malice aforethought” described above: (1) intent to inflict great bodily injury and (2) display of reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life. Although I have not been following recent developments on this case, I continue to suspect that the underlying felony is some form of robbery or rape.

  7. Hello Jamison,
    You have been kind with your time. I had a follow up question. How is it legally possible to be guilty of both first degree murder, and murder while in commission of a felony. Is it a situation of either or, or can you legally be found guilty of both? Is that not legally redundant? Or is it that the prosecution doesn’t want to box itself into a corner with the jury who may not want to convict Clark of murder one, but does want to convict him of something for her death. For instance, if Clark killed her by accident and without premeditation, but was obviously still responsible for her death. Thanks again.

  8. Chris:

    You are right about the prosecution wanting to keep its options open. Generally, the prosecution will throw every possible charge at the defendant, hoping to get as many of the charges as possible to stick. The prosecution can also use some of the extra charges for leverage during plea bargaining.

    The defendant can be tried on all the charges. Whether or not the defendant can be found guilty and sentenced on offenses depends on what is called the Blockburger test. If one charge contains an element that another charge does not, then the two charges are considered separate. If the charges contain the same elements, then the offenses would “merge” for sentencing purposes (that is, you would only be sentenced on the one charge).

    Alternatively, it is possible for one offense to be included as a lesser included offense of another. In this case, the defendant, if convicted of both charges, would only be sentenced on the more serious charge. For example, theft is generally defined as the taking of property from another with intent to deprive. Robbery contains the exact same elements except that force is also involved. Thus, theft is a lesser included offense of robbery.

    I appreciate your interest and your questions.

  9. Hello Jamison,

    I had yet another follow up question concerning Annie Le’s murder case. My question involves the family of Ray Clark and what crimes they possible committed in the support of Ray Clark for the few days after the murder but before Annie’s body was discovered. Lets say for the sake of argument some family members knew Ray was involved in Annie’s death, noticed he had changed clothes, noticed defensive wounds on his body, and helped calm him after the event when he was visibly distressed. Is it a crime to assist a loved one after a crime, or to fail to notify police if you suspect a loved one was involved in something as serous as a murder? Do you believe a family has any moral obligation, if not legal obligation, to notify police under such circumstances? As always, thanks for your time.

  10. Hello Jamison,

    Could you talk a little about the concept of hindering the prosecution, and how common it is in murder cases? How it might apply to Annie Le’s case?
    Thanks!

  11. Chris:

    Thank you for your continued interest in this topic.

    I don’t know where my original response to your question of March 16 went. I must have accidentally deleted it while deleting the many spam comments I receive. I recall I said something about Clark’s family not having to worry about being charged with obstructing justice or being an accessory to the crime after the fact unless they took active measures to destroy evidence or to prevent his arrest.

    The same should be true for hindering the prosecution. While I am not familiar with Connecticut law, “Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution” in Pennsylvania is roughly defined as being actively involved in harboring or concealing the suspect, concealing or destroying evidence, warning the suspect of impending discovery or apprehension, or providing false information to a law enforcement officer. For example, I once defended a woman who was charged with this offense for lying to the police officers who showed up at the door to arrest her son and then yelling for her son to run out the back door.

  12. Thanks! So it sounds like simply suspecting or even knowing a loved one committed a crime before he is arrested and not turning them in is not grounds for arrest. There is no legal reason a person has to turn someone in. So in this case, knowing Clark committed a murder would not be illegal in itself. They did not harbor him as his was staying at his own apartment, although they did provide him support. Helping him to retrieve evidence the day after the murder might be illegal. Driving him around? Lying to police to help Clark explain away evidence also sounds illegal under your definitions.

  13. Hello Jamison,

    Its been a little while, and you as always have been so kind with your time. I have yet another question. Why has Ray Clark not been charged with crimes related to desecrating and hiding of Annie Les body, cleaning up of the crime scene, lying to the police, attempting to conceal evidence, etc… Are these not also criminal offenses on top of the brutal murder charges? Are there no applicable charges that could be levied against him? Thanks again.

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