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Legal Lessons from Fatal Police Chase Crash: Part 2

Part one of this post introduced the case of Rakim Kilpatrick, a 25-year-old Richmond man who caused a fatal collision by running a red light during a police chase. That post discussed the offenses that most directly relate to what may generally be considered “traffic offenses.” We explained how a chain of mistakes ultimately compounded upon one another to create a horribly tragic outcome, leading to the extremely serious charge of felony murder. This post discusses the more general principles of the criminal law at work in arriving at the murder charge, including the doctrine of felony murder, the dispute over the defendant’s state of mind, the significance of his criminal history, and his possession of a firearm.

What is Felony Murder?

Felony murder (or felony homicide) is a legal concept with a long tradition in British and American jurisprudence. The law allows prosecutors to charge an accidental death as second degree murder if that death occurred during the act of committing a felony. If the death takes place during the commission of certain enumerated felonies not alleged in this case (such as rape, robbery, and burglary), the defendant may be charged with first degree murder. Felony murder laws are based on a theory that malicious intent or even premeditation can be inferred from a defendant’s decision to risk the lives of others by committing certain acts.

Mental Evaluations: What is the Relevance of the Defendant’s State of Mind?

As noted in the first installment, the judge in this case ordered a mental evaluation for the defendant to determine his fitness to stand trial. Mental competence to stand trial is a different issue than having the mental state required to be found guilty of a crime at the time of the offense. The question of the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense is one decided at trial with the assistance of expert psychiatric testimony.

The issue of competence to stand trial is a pretrial procedure that focuses on the question of whether the defendant “lacks substantial capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist his attorney in his own defense.” It does not have any relevance to the determination of guilt or innocence, only to the question of if and when trial may proceed. If the defendant is found to be incompetent to stand trial by this standard, there is generally a rehabilitative time set and the trial is delayed while the defendant is treated. If the defendant is deemed “unrestorably incompetent,” he may either be committed for further treatment, released, or held for further treatment. What happens after this will largely depend on whether further treatment is medically appropriate, the likelihood of being restored to competence, the nature of the charges against the defendant, and whether the defendant would present a danger to himself or others if released. Any determination in which the defendant is neither tried nor released must be revisited every six months. If charges are dismissed due to incompetence to stand trial, they may be brought again later if the defendant is restored to competence.

The Significance of the Gun:

Some states have altered the traditional strict felony murder rule to only apply in felonies in which the underlying felony was violent and the defendant was armed or had reason to believe one of his accomplices or co-conspirators was armed. The theory of this rule, known as the “New York defense,” is that in such a case it is unjust to infer an intent to kill when a defendant had no reason to foresee the death. While the Virginia courts have not yet adopted the New York defense, some scholars believe they could do so eventually if presented with the right case. As explained below, this is not that case.

Here, the possession of a firearm serves to form a basis for the most serious charge of felony murder in two ways. First, it establishes one of the underlying felonies on which the felony murder theory is predicated. Second, it tends to negate any argument that the defendant lacked the presumed intent to put lives at risk.

Contact a Virginia Criminal Attorney

If you are charged with a crime, whether it be misdemeanor reckless driving or a more serious charge such as murder, it is in your best interests to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. The Leesburg, Fairfax and Prince William County attorneys at Simms Showers in Leesburg know how to mount a vigorous defense no matter how serious the charges. We are experienced in a wide variety of criminal defense matters, and if retained we will ensure that you receive a fair trial, leaving no stone unturned in our pursuit of the best defenses the law has to offer in your case.

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