Law School Case Brief
Barnett v. State - 2011 OK CR 28, 263 P.3d 959
Under the merger doctrine, or independent crime requirement, in order for the taking of human life in the commission of a felony to constitute murder, the precedent felony must constitute an independent crime not included within the resulting homicide. The merger doctrine is a historical feature of Oklahoma case law, and is not based on any statutory or constitutional text. The merger doctrine does not implicate any principle of constitutional law. The merger doctrine is entirely separate from the principle of merger of offenses under the constitutional prohibition against multiple punishments for the same offense under the Double Jeopardy Clause of U.S. Const. amend. V.
Defendant Eric Jose Barnett was found guilty of second-degree felony murder for killing the convicted rapist who had assaulted his mother years before. During trial in Oklahoma state court, Barnett admitted the shooting but said he killed the victim because he was afraid that the victim would come back to harm his family as he had recently threatened to do. Barnett was sentenced to 23 years' imprisonment. Barnett appealed, arguing, among other things, that the conviction for second-degree felony murder should be vacated because the merger doctrine prohibited using the act that caused the victim's death as a predicate felony in a felony murder prosecution.
Was the merger doctrine applicable in Barnett's case where he committed a "drive-by shooting" resulting in the victim's death?
The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court held that no plain error occurred where Barnett was convicted of second degree murder for killing the victim, a bystander, in the commission of using a vehicle to facilitate intentional discharge of a firearm. The mens rea associated with this type of drive-by shooting was either the malice aforethought of first degree murder, which could be inferred from the fact of killing and may be formed instantly before the fatal act, or perpetrating an imminently dangerous act, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual. The current legislative classification of criminal homicides by their respective degrees, defined by distinct factual elements, obviated the need for the merger doctrine. The court expressly ruled that, to the extent that earlier cases recognizing the merger doctrine as a limitation on the statutory definition of second-degree felony murder were inconsistent with the court's current ruling, they were overruled.
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