An in-depth look at the felony murder rule

3:53 AM, Feb 14, 2003   |    comments
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For the past seven months Janet Danahey has been in prison for setting the fire that killed four people at the campus walk apartments.

While this seems like a clear case of crime and punishment, Danahey's sentence has sparked a debate about the law which put her behind bars for life.

In this 2 Wants to Know Investigation, WFMY News2's Lechelle Yates gives us an in-depth look at this felony murder rule.

The felony murder rule is as old as this country.

It's designed for instances where two people go to rob a bank.

The getaway driver waits in the car-the robber goes in and shoots the teller-prosecutors can charge both with first-degree murder.

Some say the felony murder rule is an easy way to get guilty plea.

Others say it holds people accountable for taking a life.

But the details of Janet Danahey's case and others around the country have put the felony murder rule on trial in the court of public opinion.

"I made a big mistake and I am sorry for it."

Dressed in prison blue, Janet Danahey will have a lifetime behind bars to be sorry for burning down the campus walk apartments and for killing four people in the process.

She'll also have a lifetime to think of all the choices she had that fateful night.

Danahey says, "I hate to see this roller coaster happening of one bad choice makes a thousand other bad choices and I think in some respect that has happened here."

The 24-year-old college graduate says she and her two girlfriends came up with the idea of starting the fire but she says she is the one who lit it and used lighter fluid to make the futon burn.

And she says she never called fire department even after she thought the flames had spread to the porch.

But Janet says she never intended for anyone to die.

"Have you ever when you were my age sped in a car with your friends and they say let's see how fast we can go. You're not thinking when you're in the car that someone could walk across the street, you're not thinking at all. Those mistakes happen and for some people the repercussions of those stupid mistakes aren't as bad."

Guilford County District Attorney Stuart Albright charged Janet with arson.

For the lives lost, the law gave him a number of choices ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree felony murder.

Under the state's felony murder rule, a person can be charged with murder if someone dies while the person is committing or attempting to commit a felony like arson-even if the death is accidental.

Prosecutors don't have to prove intent, an element usually required for a first-degree murder conviction.

Albright did charge Janet with first-degree felony murder.

He says fire investigators told him the fire was not smoldering when she walked away like she claims.

Albright says, "If you're playing with an inherently dangerous weapon you need to be responsible for the consequences. She knew someone could die. At the very least she knew someone could die when the fire was burning, people were sleeping, it's 2 a.m., it wasn't raining. She knew the fire wasn't going to out. We can prove all that beyond a reasonable doubt and she left. What's the difference with someone taking a loaded gun and shooting in to a crowded room? They didn’t intend to hit anyone because everybody is moving around but I'm not going to coddle someone who plays with inherently dangerous weapons absolutely knowing someone could die."

Jim Kimel has argued both sides of the felony murder rule as a long time prosecutor in Guilford County and as Janet's defense attorney.

Kimel says, "I think the felony murder rule is the dream of every prosecutor and the nightmare of every defense every defense attorney. It's an easy way to prove that somebody is guilty of first-degree murder. The felony murder rule-it disregards the intentions of the person and focuses solely on the consequences. It throws out the first part the intentions of what you were going to do and it robs you of the fact you can't go down to involuntary manslaughter which is unintentional killing."

Ronald Wright teaches at the Wake Forest Law School.

He says, "A lot people say well maybe you didn’t intend to kill but your intent was very bad. And so it's just splitting hairs." But on the other hand, he says critics of the felony murder rule say it’s unjust because it treats equally those who intended to take a life and those who didn’t. "It's inconsistent with a lot of the emphasis of the criminal law on intent and comparing the intent of criminal A to the intent of criminal B and making sure that they're roughly at the same level."

The felony murder rule dates back to England and most states have it on the books.

But prosecutors are applying it to a wider range of crimes like the Lisl Auman case in Colorado.

Auman met skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig the night before they burglarized her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in the mountains to retrieve her belongings.

The police chased them to Denver, where they took Auman into custody.

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