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People v. Burroughs

    Citation. 35 Cal. 3d 824, 678 P.2d 894,201 Cal. Rptr. 319, 1984 Cal. 168.

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Burroughs, a “healer,” was convicted for felony murder and felony practicing medicine without a license after a patient in his care died.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In order to be guilty of felony murder, the underlying felony must be “inherently dangerous to human life.”

    Facts. The Defendant was a “healer.” The victim, Lee Swatsenbarg, had been diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The victim had sought treatment from traditional sources and through Bible study. Then, on the advice of a mutual acquaintance, the victim sought treatment from the Defendant. The Defendant recommended consuming “lemonade,” exposure to colored lights, and vigorous massage by the Defendant. The Defendant represented that he had treated thousands of people, including physicians. The Defendant suggested that the victim read his book, which he did. Thereafter, the victim began treatment by the Defendant. During the 30-day treatment, the victim was advised not to have contact with his physician. Rather than improving, the victim began a rapid deterioration within two weeks. He developed a fever and became weak. The Defendant stated that all was going as planned and convinced the victim to postpone a bone marrow test urged by his doctor. During the following week, the victim became
    increasingly ill. He experienced severe pain and vomiting. The Defendant administered “deep” abdominal massages on two successive days and told the Defendant he would recover soon. After three and a half weeks of treatment, the victim and his wife spent the night at the Defendant’s house where the victim died of a massive hemorrhage of the mesentery in the abdomen. The evidence strongly suggested that the hemorrhage was caused by the massages.

    Issue. Did the trial judge properly instruct the jury that the unlicensed practice of medicine is “inherently dangerous to human life?”

    Held. No.
    When an individual causes the death of another in the furtherance of a felony, he may be liable for felony murder. However, one cannot be liable for felony murder unless the felony is “inherently dangerous to human life.”

    The rationale behind such a rule is that “[i]f the felony is not inherently dangerous, it is highly improbable that the potential felon will be deterred: he will not anticipate that injury or death might arise solely from the fact that he will commit the felony.”

    In the present case, practicing medicine without a license is not an inherently dangerous felony. Depending on the affliction, the risk of death is often minimal with the unlicensed practice of medicine. Further, an element causing the practice of medicine without license to rise to the felony level is causing or creating a risk of serious illness or death. Listing the word “death” in the disjunctive implies the felony can be committed without risking death. Therefore, the Defendant’s conviction for felony murder cannot stand.


    Discussion. Death must be caused while committing an inherently dangerous felony for a person to be criminally liable for felony murder.


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