People v. Burton
6 Cal.3d 375, 491 P.2d 793 (1971)

  • Burton was committing an armed robbery. He ended up killing someone. He was arrested and charged with murder.
    • FYI armed robbery includes as assault with a deadly weapon as a necessary element of the crime.
  • At Trial, the Judge instructed the jury that they could find Burton guilty of first-degree murder if they found that the death happened as a result of the robbery, even if that death was unintentional (aka felony murder).
    • Normally first-degree murder required premeditation and deliberation, but a defendant can be culpable of even an unintentional murder if it occurs during the commission of a felony.
  • The Trial Court found Burton guilty of first-degree murder. He appealed.
    • Burton argued that it was unfair to find him guilty of felony murder when the underlying felony was robbery, because robbery is an inherently dangerous felony. Since robbery is a violent crime that often results in people getting hurt, there are severe criminal penalties for robbery. To add extra penalties for the death is a sort of double-jeopardy.
      • That’s known as the merger doctrine.
  • The California Supreme Court affirmed the jury instruction.
    • The California Supreme Court found that, according to Burton’s logic, felony murder would be inapplicable in all situations where someone was committing a crime with a deadly weapon. The Court rejected that notion as too broad.
    • The Court differentiated crimes where the intent is to hurt someone (e.g. assault), from crimes where the intent is to do something else (e.g. get their money).
      • The Court found that in cases where the purpose of the crime was the infliction of bodily injury, felony murder should not be considered separately.
      • However, in cases where the main purpose of the crime was not the infliction of bodily injury (like robbery), then an unintentional death can result in a felony murder charge.
  • The merger doctrine says that certain violent felonies already include the possibility of a killing in their definitions and sentencing guidelines. Therefore, it is unfair to use them as the underlying (aka predicate) felony for a felony murder charge.
    • However, the merger rule is generally limited to felonies that are not ‘independent’ of the killing. Basically, that’s just assault.