Thursday, August 20, 2009
The California Supreme Court has long been influential in shaping the contours of the felony murder rule, and two of its recent cases have limited the reach of the rule in California and may be influential beyond the state.
Most recently, in People v. Farley, 46 Cal.4th 1053 (2009), the Court overruled People v. Wilson, 1 Cal.3d 431 (1969), and held that the merger doctrine does not apply to first degree felony murder. Wilson had applied the merger doctrine to first degree felony murder based upon a burglary committed with the intent to assault the murder victim. Farley emphasizes legislative prerogative in defining crime and fixing penalties.
Earlier in the year, in People v. Chun, 45 Cal.4th 1172 (2009), the Court considered the merger doctrine in the context of second degree felony murder and overruled two decisions: People v. Robertson, 34 Cal.4th 156 (2004) (applying the independent purpose test); and People v. Hansen, 9 Cal.4th 300 (1994) (asking whether the use of the particular predicate felony will subvert the legislative intent to calibrate punishment for homicide). Chun holds that a felony merges with the homicide and cannot be the basis of a felony murder instruction when that felony is assaultive in nature. Chun declined to identify the felonies which are assaultive in nature, but explained that these felonies involve “a threat of immediate violent injury” (at 1200). Chun further explains that the court determines whether a crime merges by examining the elements of the crime and not the facts of the case.