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Who Did the Illinois Felony Murder Doctrine Reform Leave Behind?

 Posted on July 05, 2024 in Criminal Defense

IL defense lawyerEngland is the origination point for felony murder laws, yet those laws were abolished in 1957. Today, America is the only country where felony murder laws exist. Illinois expanded the ways felony murder could be charged in 1961 after having the law in place since 1827. Then, on January 22, 2021, the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act, was signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker.  

A provision that narrowed—but did not abolish—Illinois felony murder laws was tucked away in the SAFE-T Act. Many people who fell under the felony murder law seem to have been deliberately left behind under SAFE-T. The Illinois felony murder law prior to SAFE-T establishes strict liability without the requirement of proof of culpable mental state regarding the actions that caused a death.

What this means in practical terms is that under the felony murder law, those with no actual involvement in a murder can end up spending life in prison. Young people and women are at a much higher risk of being charged under the felony murder law. The brains of young adults are not developed enough to anticipate the potential consequences of their actions.

Because of domestic violence and trauma in their lives, women may be less able to say no to the instigators of forcible felonies. About one-quarter of those identified as serving time for felony murder are women—compared to five percent of women incarcerated on murder charges overall in the state.  

Those facing felony murder charges must have a skilled criminal defense attorney who has significant experience with violent crime charges, particularly felony murder. At Law Offices of James F. DiQuattro, a knowledgeable attorney will aggressively fight against the injustice of these charges.

How Is the Felony Murder Law Applied?

An example of how the felony murder law has been applied lies in the case of one man, who is currently serving life in prison on an Illinois felony murder conviction. He was twenty at the time, went with three friends to rob a house that they thought was unoccupied. The man and one of his friends sat in the car and waited for the other two, who were surprised when the owner came home.

Shots were fired on both sides—one of the man's friends and the owner of the house died. He was charged under felony murder laws and will likely spend his entire life behind bars. Although he had hope when he heard about the SAFE-T Act, he soon found it would not be retroactive.

Did the SAFE-T Act Accomplish Its Goals?

While the SAFE-T Act did "narrow" felony murder laws, making it more difficult to charge those who did not kill anyone, many feel that it did not go far enough. For example, under SAFE-T, if a person being robbed fires his or her gun in self-defense and accidentally kills a bystander or the robber’s accomplice, then the robber cannot be charged with felony murder. Yet if a co-defendant causes a death during the commission of an underlying felony, the defendant can be sentenced to life in prison. This is true even when death could not reasonably have been foreseen.

During the 2019-2020 Illinois legislative session, two bills were introduced that would have altered the felony murder law. Under the proposed bills, a defendant could be charged with felony murder only under specific circumstances. The prosecution would be charged with proving the defendant knew his or her co-defendants were about to engage in actions that would likely result in death. These bills died in committee.

Although many believe the SAFE-T Act did not go far enough regarding the felony murder law in Illinois, perhaps most disappointing is that the reform was not applied retroactively. All those currently serving life in an Illinois prison under the felony murder law will not get a second chance unless a bill is passed that would make the reform retroactive.   

Contact a Chicago, IL Criminal Defense Attorney

At Law Offices of James F. DiQuattro, we understand how intimidating it can be to face criminal charges, particularly when those charges are for violent crimes with the potential of life in prison sentences. You deserve an experienced Chicago, IL criminal defense attorney to help you through this difficult time. We provide dedicated, compassionate representation for those charged with criminal offenses in Chicago and Cook County. Contact Law Offices of James F. DiQuattro at 312-627-9482 to set up a free consultation and discuss the possible defense strategies available.  

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