If you ask someone to define murder in Texas, they will usually say it’s intentionally taking someone’s life – often with a weapon such as a gun, knife or ligature. And while that is certainly accurate, there is also another, less common way to commit murder. It’s called “felony murder” and it covers situations in which a person kills without intent.
In this article, we are going to explain the felony murder rule and offer some real examples of how it has been used to prosecute people in North Texas, including in a growing number of drunk driving fatalities.
The Definition of Murder in Texas
Murder is defined in Chapter 19.02 of the Texas Penal Code, which specifies three ways in which it can be committed. It’s the third definition – which is commonly referred to as the “felony murder rule” – that we will be exploring in this article today. But first, here’s a look at the complete definition.
A person commits the offense of murder if he or she:
- intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; or
- intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
- commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he or she commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life and causes the death of an individual.
What’s the difference between murder and felony murder?
As you can see from the lengthy definition of murder, there are a number of scenarios under which murder can be committed in Texas. The most common way is to intentionally or knowingly cause the death of an individual.
This could be done by a different means, including using a weapon, poisoning someone or striking them with a car. It can also be committed by intending to cause serious bodily injury and causing a death, such as fatally hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat during a fight.
But what if you didn’t mean to kill anyone? What if you were just trying to commit a felony, like robbing a bank or a store, and someone died as a result? In this case, you could be charged with felony murder.
Felony murder occurs when someone commits or attempts to commit a felony and, in the process, also performs an act “clearly dangerous to human life” that causes the death of another person. A classic example would be a getaway driver in a robbery who, while fleeing the scene, runs over and kills a pedestrian. Even though the driver didn’t intend to kill anyone, they can still be prosecuted for felony murder under Texas law.
Under that example, the getaway driver was committing a felony (robbery) and in the process also performed an act “clearly dangerous to human life” (fleeing the scene) and killed a person (fatally struck a pedestrian.)
What’s the punishment for felony murder in Texas?
From a legal perspective, felony murder is not treated any differently than a so-called “standard murder.” It’s a first-degree felony punishable by 5 years to up to life in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
How common is felony murder in Texas?
While it’s not as common as standard murder, felony murder is prosecuted often in Texas, and especially, in Tarrant County. Tarrant County has increasingly used this charge in the prosecution of fatal drunk driving wrecks involving repeat offenders. In fact, in October 2004, Tarrant County became one of the first counties in Texas to use felony murder in the prosecution of a habitual drunk driver who caused the death of someone.
How do prosecutors use felony murder in the prosecution of habitual drunk drivers who kill someone?
Under the law in Texas, a driver can be charged with felony DWI if he or she has two or more prior DWI convictions or drives intoxicated with a child in the vehicle. Over the past two decades, prosecutors have used felony DWI as the underlying element that is required to charge someone with felony murder.
Let’s look at the first felony murder case Tarrant County used to prosecute a chronic drunk driver involved in a fatality. In 2003, Jake Aaron Strickland had been drinking at a downtown Fort Worth nightclub when he drove the wrong way onto the freeway and slammed into a vehicle occupied by Julie and Brent Jones. Brent Jones was killed instantly.
Prosecutors decided to pursue the murder charge against Strickland after discovering he had two previous misdemeanor convictions for driving while intoxicated. The collision that killed Jones was Strickland’s third DWI-related charge; because it was the third, the charge became a felony.
Again, under the Texas Penal Code, a defendant can be charged with murder if, while committing a felony, he performs an act “clearly dangerous to human life.” In this case, prosecutors accused Strickland of committing felony DWI and then committing a dangerous act by driving the wrong way down the freeway.
To learn more about felony DWI, please take a moment to watch this video by Benson Varghese, a Board Certified Criminal Lawyer.
Why would prosecutors pursue a felony murder charge rather than an intoxication manslaughter charge?
Felony murder carries a punishment of five years to life in prison, while intoxication manslaughter is punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison. If the facts fit, they pursue the murder charge in an effort to get harsher punishment.
What are some other examples of felony murder prosecutions in North Texas?
- A TCU student was indicted on a charge of felony murder after being accused of injecting heroin into the arm of his friend, causing his death. The indictment alleged that the defendant was committing a felony – delivery of a controlled substance – when he injected his friend with heroin – an act clearly dangerous to human life.
- An Arlington mother was charged with felony murder after officials said she was driving while intoxicated with child in her vehicle (a felony) when she drove the wrong way on the freeway (an act clearly dangerous to human life) and caused another vehicle to collide into a pickup. When the drivers got out to assess the damage, another vehicle struck a man on the roadway, killing him.
- A Denton County grand jury returned a murder indictment against a chronic drunk driver on charges that he drove drunk again on Easter (a felony) and caused a wreck (act dangerous to human life), killing two members of an Argyle family and seriously injuring three others. It was the first time that a felony murder charge had been filed in Denton County for a death allegedly caused by a repeat DWI offender.
- A Burleson man with two prior DWI convictions (a felony) was charged with felony murder after he allegedly drove drunk and hit a concrete barrier (act clearly dangerous to human life), killing his passenger.
Accused of Felony Murder in North Texas?
If you or a loved one is facing a charge of felony murder in Fort Worth or North Texas, it’s vital that you contact an experienced defense attorney immediately. Our team has decades of experience handling murder cases, both as defense attorneys and former prosecutors. We will work tirelessly to build a defense that will give you the best chance of a favorable outcome. Call 817-203-2220 now for a free consultation with a seasoned criminal attorney.