Murder by Death

What happens when you didn't mean it?

Should the Safeway case go to trial, the jury will be asked to decide the truth of an apparently simple formulation: Because the defendant decided to rob a store, the victim died. "The concept of cause, which is not a scientifically precise one, has to do a lot of work here," says Wesson. "Because jurors are asked to interpret this imprecise concept, it makes the results highly unpredictable. Criminal law should be precise in notifying people what is forbidden or allowed and what the degree of guilt is for any particular transgression. All those imponderables get tucked into that one question: Did the robbery cause the death? It's a misleadingly simple formulation for a bunch of complex and unpredictable judgments."

Cathleen Lord of the Denver Public Defender's Office is handling Auman's appeal and plans to file a motion at the end of May. Auman's case, she says, "raises serious questions about how far-reaching felony murder is and whether it was meant to cover this sort of situation at all."

"The felony murder rule is the prosecutor's best friend," Wesson concludes. "They love it, and one can see why."

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