The felony-murder rule has been criticized on the grounds that in almost all cases in which it is applied it is unnecessary and that it erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability. Although it is the law in this state, Cal. Penal Code § 189 should not be extended beyond any rational function that it is designed to serve. Accordingly, for a defendant to be guilty of murder under the felony-murder rule the act of killing must be committed by the defendant or by his accomplice acting in furtherance of their common design.
A store owner prepared to close his gasoline station. He was in his office computing the receipts and disbursements of the day while an attendant in an adjacent storage room deposited money in a vault. Upon hearing someone yell "robbery," the owner opened his desk and took out a revolver. A few moments later, one of the robbers entered the office and pointed a revolver directly at the owner, who fired immediately, mortally wounding the robber. The owner then hurried to the door and saw an unarmed man he later identified as defendant running from the vault with a moneybag in his right hand. He shouted "Stop." When his warning was not heeded, he fired and hit defendant who fell wounded in front of the station. The defendant was convicted of murder for participating in a robbery in which his accomplice was killed by the victim of the robbery. He appealed from a death sentence, arguing that he could not be convicted for a killing by someone resisting the robbery. The prosecution contended the conviction was proper because one of the purposes of the felony-murder rule was to deter robberies.
Was it proper to convict the defendant of murder for the shooting death of his accomplice?
The court reversed the murder conviction and death sentence, holding neither the common-law rationale of the rule nor the state penal code supported the prosecution's contention. The court further held a felony murder conviction was proper only if defendant or his accomplice committed the killing while furthering their common design. In affirming the robbery conviction, however, the court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction because, although defendant's testimony that another man had committed the robbery was corroborated by that man, a witness controverted their testimony by identifying defendant as the man who ran from the vault.