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State v. Sophophone

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Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Sanexay Sophophone, appeals his conviction for felony murder for the death of his co-felon.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. A defendant cannot be guilty of felony murder for the death of his co-felon caused by the lawful acts of police officers in apprehending the co-felon.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Time, distance, and the causal relationship between the underlying felony and the killing are factors to be considered in determining whether the killing is a part of the felony and, therefore, subject to the felony-murder rule.

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Facts. The Defendant and three others conspired to burglarize a residence. The resident reported the break in, and police officers responded to call. The individuals all ran. The Defendant was chased and apprehended. His co-felon, Somphone Sysoumphone, was chased, caught, and ordered to the ground. With his face down to the ground, Sysoumphone raised up and fired at the police officer. The officer returned fire and killed Sysoumphone. The Defendant was charged with and convicted of felony murder on the theory that the Defendant proximately caused Sysoumphone’s death by setting in motion the acts causing his death. This appeal ensued on the issue of whether the death of a co-felon can constitute felony murder.

Issue. Can the Defendant be convicted of felony murder for the killing of a co-felon not caused by his acts but by the lawful acts of a police officer acting in self-defense in the course and scope of his duties in apprehending the co-felon fleeing from an aggravated burglary?

Held. No. Conviction reversed. Felony murder is defined as “the killing of a human being committed . . . in the commission of, attempt to commit, or flight from an inherently dangerous felony.” Under the agency approach to the application of the felony murder doctrine the killing must be committed by the felon or his or her agent or accomplice. However, under the proximate cause approach, liability attaches for any death proximately resulting from the unlawful activity if the felon sets in motion the acts resulting in death. This, however, does not apply to co-felons killed not by the acts of the defendant but rather the lawful acts of a police officer acting in self defense or attempting to apprehend the co-felon. Therefore, the defendant’s conviction cannot stand.

Discussion. A defendant is responsible for death caused by his commission of an inherently dangerous felony, even if his acts do not directly cause death but set in motion the acts causing death. This general rule, however, excludes co-felons.

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