Jefferson Memorial

Felony-Murder and the Case of Annie Le

Jamison KoehlerOther Criminal Offenses

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.