An execution last month in Mississippi and another scheduled for next week in Texas have reignited a debate over whether the death penalty should be given to those who participate in killings – but do not personally carry them out, says Stateline.org. The two cases involve convicted under state laws that allow accomplices in some felonies that result in murder to be prosecuted as killers – even if they were not directly responsible for killing anyone. The laws are part of a broader legal principle known as the felony murder rule, which also allows those who unintentionally kill someone during serious felonies to be charged with first-degree murder, instead of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. All but four states – Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio – have some version of the felony murder rule.
Civil libertarians, trial lawyers and others have attacked the felony murder rule as an egregious example of unequal justice – particularly when it involves the ultimate punishment for accomplices. Supporters of the rule say states should be able to execute felons who knowingly participate in crimes in which death is a likely and often foreseeable outcome, such as burglary, robbery, and rape. “What do you think is going to happen when a guy goes into a convenience store to rob it and he's armed with a gun, and your job is to help him commit that crime?” said Mary Lou Leary of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “It's a very high-risk activity.”