People v. Burton, 491 P.2d 793 (1971)

Case Name: People v. Burton
Citation:  491 P.2d 793 (1971)

 Facts: Burton was committing the felony of armed robbery, during which he killed someone. He was arrested and charged with murder. At Trial, the Judge instructed the jury that they could find Burton guilty of first-degree murder if they found that the death happened as a result of the robbery, even if that death was unintentional.

State’s argument: The doctrine of felony-murder applies because armed robbery is inherently dangerous to life.

Defendant’s argument: An independent felonious purpose does not exist between the murder and the armed robbery.

Holding: An independent felonious purpose does exist and the defendant can be charged with felony-murder.

Reasoning: We look at the mind (mens rea) of the defendant committing the crime. The felony-murder doctrine is purposed to deter those committing felonies from killing people by holding them strictly liable for their deaths.


Murder under Common Law was the “the killing of another with malice aforethought.” Malice means the defendant had a malignant heart with the intent to kill; a heart devoid of social duty and fatally bent on mischief. A defendant could be charged with implied malice murder (which is not a separate crime; still murder) if he acted with a malignant heart and the defendant knew there was a high risk of death or grievous bodily injury.

Under modern law, many states have subdivided murder into degrees. For example, first-degree murder is the premeditated killing of another. In second-degree murder, the defendant still has malice but no premeditation. Premeditated has been interpreted to mean planned, deliberate, and willful. How much time is required for premeditation? Courts have differed. (Compare Commonwealth v. Carroll holding that no time is too short for the necessary premeditation to occur; the space of time between the premeditation and the fatal act is immaterial if the killing was in fact intentional, willful, and deliberate; against State v. Guthrie stating that “to allow the State to prove premeditation…by only showing that the intention came into existence for the first time at the time of such killing completely eliminates the distinction between the two degrees of murder;” there must be some appreciable amount of time.)

Some things courts will weigh (although these are not usually given the same weight):

  1. Person of ordinary judgment would know it is reasonably certain to cause serious bodily injury
  2. Done from some ill will/hatred
  3. Indicates indifference/depraved indifference to life

The MPC Section 210.2 states that “criminal homicide constitutes murder when:

(a) it is committed purposely or knowingly; or

(b) it is committed recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

In section (a), the MPC ask was the murder purposeful or did the defendant do it knowingly? If yes, the defendant is guilty of murder.

In section (b), the MPC asks whether the defendant exhibited extreme indifference to the value of human life. For the defendant to manifest extreme indifference, he must have some conscience awareness.

Section (b) also notes that “recklessness and indifference are presumed if the actor is engaged or is an accomplice to” a felony (whether in the commission of, while attempting to commit, or in flight after committing/attempting). This is essentially the common law felony-murder rule.

Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, 14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884)

Case Name: Regina v. Dudley and Stephens
Citation: 14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884) Queens Branch Division

Facts: Four seamen were stranded on an open boat (life boat) at sea. After twenty days, two of the seamen killed the youngest (17 or 18 years old) to use his body for food. Four days later the three men were rescued. The jury found the facts but entered a special verdict seeking the advice of the Court whether or not this constituted murder.

Issue: Whether the extreme circumstances of the seamen provided them with a legal justification (necessity) for murder.

Defendant’s argument: They were in extreme circumstances and if they did not kill the boy, none of them would have lived. The boy was the weakest and would probably have died anyways. It was better for one to die so that three may live as opposed to all four dying. Necessity is a justification for murder.

State’s argument: The only acceptable taking the life of another is in “self-defence” when the assailant is seeking to kill another. Here, the boy was not the aggressor and did not do anything worthy of death.

Court’s reasoning: The two men should not have made the decision to kill another and the judge is sure not to condone this because of the dangerous precedent it would set when situations like this arise. “[i]t is quite plain that such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime.” He talks about the morals of laying down one’s life for another (both found in heathen and Christian texts).

Holding: Although the temptation was great (and even he might not be able to resist it) does not give a man the right to declare temptation to be an excuse. “It is therefore our duty to declare that the prisoners’ act in this case was willful murder” and there was not a “legal justification of the homicide.”

Judgment: The two men received the death penalty (which was later commuted by the Crown to six months imprisonment).

People v. Zackowitz, 254 NY 192 (1930)

Case Name: People v. Zackowitz
Citation: 254 NY 192 (1930)

Facts: Zackowitz, the defendant, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after killing a young man, Coppola. The incident occurred after Coppola and three other young men said insulting words to the defendant’s wife. The defendant’s wife informed Zackowitz after the incident when the two of them were at home. Enraged Zackowitz went back to the men, exchanged words, and shot one of the men, Coppola, with a pistol. The state brought in evidence about three pistols and a teargas gun (none of which were used in the shooting) to show that Zackowitz was “a desperate type of criminal” and a “person criminally inclined.”

Issue: Whether the evidence regarding the defendant’s three pistols and teargas gun were properly admitted.

State’s argument: The evidence was brought to show the defendant’s killing was deliberate and premeditated (first-degree murder) due to the inference that he was “a desperate type of criminal” and a “person criminally inclined.”

Defendant’s argument: The evidence shows a murderous propensity which is character evidence. Under the rules of evidence, character evidence cannot be introduced unless the defendant first makes it an issue.

Reasoning: The evidence was improperly admitted as character evidence which cannot be introduced unless the defendant first makes it an issue. This is to prevent prejudice of the defendant by the jury. Not to mention, the evidence might not even have been relevant.

Judgment: The conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.