Commonwealth v. Timothy Brown: Felony Murder Limited

On September 20, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court, in a four-judge concurring opinion in Commonwealth v. Timothy Brown, abolished the current Massachusetts doctrine of felony murder and replaced it with a new doctrine that requires the prosecution to prove actual malice. As Attorney Nathanson commented in the Boston Globe (here or here), felony murder law was "the ultimate technicality" because murder requires proof of malice, but felony murder replaced that with simply the intent to commit a felony. That rule did violence to some of our most basic principles of criminal justice: (a) that the government must prove all the elements of the crime, including intent, (b) that the defendant is presumed innocent, rather than essentially presuming his guilt of murder from his commission of some other offense, and (c) most importantly punishment - here, life imprisonment without parole - must fit the defendant's culpability or blameworthiness, rather than punishing him for unintended consequences from accidents or out-of-control compatriots.

This decision was part of long campaign against felony murder. Wood & Nathanson played an important role in that campaign. As we noted in April, Attorney Wood and a team from Foley Hoag argued in Commonwealth v. Morin for the abolition of felony murder for precisely the reasons the Chief Justice Gants gives in the Brown opinion. We are particularly proud of the work of Attorney Wood, along with K. Neil Austin and the team from Foley Hoag, on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in that case. The brief is here. While the defendant in Brown did raise the issue, the Morin challenge was the most recent, most comprehensive and most direct challenge to the entire felony murder doctrine, citing multistate research and academic work that was at the heart of Chief Justice Gants' decision in Brown.

This decision is particularly gratifying to us primarily because it is a right and just decision. But also, it represents a success of our philosophy of arguing for fundamental reform in the criminal law and enlisting the support of anyone and everyone who can help, in this case the great team from the international law firm Foley Hoag, LLP.

We now move on to similarly important fights, including the adoption of a "reasonable juvenile" mental state standard in juvenile cases, and the outlawing of pretextual traffic stops.