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State v. Martin

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Martin (Defendant) set a fire as he left a building, resulting in a woman’s death. Defendant appealed his conviction of felony murder, arguing that the court improperly instructed the jury that Defendant was guilty even if the act which caused the death was unintentional or accidental.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When a material element of an absolute-liability offense is the causing of a particular result, the state must prove that this result is a probable consequence of the defendant’s actions.

    Facts.

    Defendant and four other individuals attended a party where all were consuming alcohol and using marijuana. After an altercation broke up the party, everyone left the building except for one woman, who had passed out from intoxication. On his way out of the building, Defendant set fire to a paper bag containing trash in order to “make a mess of things” but without intending harm to anyone. The building caught fire and the woman died from smoke inhalation. Defendant was tried for felony murder and convicted. He appealed, claiming that the court’s instruction to the jury that it did not matter whether the act which caused the death was committed recklessly, unintentionally, or accidentally was erroneous.

    Issue.

    When causing a particular result is a material element of an absolute-liability offense, must the state prove that this result is a probable consequence of the defendant’s actions?

    Held.

    (Pollock, J.) Yes. When a material element of an absolute-liability offense is the causing of a particular result, the state must prove that this result is a probable consequence of the defendant’s actions. In order to prove that Defendant caused the victim’s death, the death must not be too remote, accidental, or dependent upon another’s own actions to take it outside of the realm of a probable consequence. Felony-murder laws that hold a defendant liable for a death no matter the defendant’s mental state conflict with the idea of criminal law that generally people are not liable for the consequences of their conduct unless those consequences were intended, contemplated, or foreseeable. Because of this conflict, the drafters of the Model Penal Code took care in drafting the felony-murder rule. The New Jersey statute did not adopt the Model Penal Code approach, but does require that when the consequence of a defendant’s actions is an element of an absolute liability offense, it must be a probable consequence of those actions. Under this felony-murder statute, the consequence—the victim’s death—is not established unless it is the probable consequence of the commission of the felony. Some deaths are too remotely related to the commission of the felony to hold the defendant responsible for felony-murder. Therefore, the trial court erred when it instructed the jury that a conviction for felony-murder could be supported by an act that caused the death whether the act was committed recklessly, unintentionally, or accidentally. Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion.

    The Model Penal Code does not treat felony-murder as an absolute liability offense. Instead it creates a rebuttable presumption of recklessness when a homicide occurs in the course of the commission of certain felonies. If the presumption is not rebutted it can support a murder conviction.


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