Via the San Jose Mercury News, a story about a tragic death stemming from what appears to have started as a teenager stealing liquor at 57-year-old Dong Suk Kang’s Oakland store:
The confrontation started after Kang saw the youth take two bottles of Grey Goose vodka, authorities said.
When Kang tried to stop the boy, a violent pushing-and-shoving match began, and the boy threatened to do the man harm, Officer Angelica Mendoza said. At one point the boy slammed Kang against a counter, Mendoza said. Kang’s wife of two years, In Cha Ho, said she saw the boy hit her husband in the face.
Eventually, the boy fled the store. Kang told his wife to call police and got in his car to follow the teen. A few blocks away Kang lost consciousness, and his car swerved to a stop against a curb. He died at Highland Hospital.
The teenage boy has been charged with “felony murder” under a state law that says an person who commits a crime is criminally responsible for any deaths that occur during the crime–whether or not they ever intended for that person to die.
The felony murder rule is a somewhat controversial piece of penal code: an accidental killing or death can turn into murder if it happens during a robbery, burglary, kidnapping, arson, or sexual assault, among other felonies. Originally, the law (California Penal Code, section 189) was interpreted quite broadly, but the California Supreme Court has ruled that the doctrine is meant to “deter felons from killing negligently or accidentally by holding them strictly liable for the killings they commit.” In that particular case, People v. Washington, two men were robbing a convenience store when one of them was shot and killed by the store’s owner. Though the man was killed by the robbery victim, the robber’s accomplice was convicted of felony murder–a conviction the California Supreme Court overturned, because they found it did not fit with the intent of the law, which is aimed at negligent or accidental killings.
Does this Oakland tragedy fit the doctrine? Prosecutors, to prove felony murder, must prove that the boy committed an applicable felony, in this case robbery, beyond a reasonable doubt. If the boy did intend to rob the store, the death must then have happened during the commission of that robbery to be felony murder. And the robbery must have in some way caused the death.
Similar cases have come up before. In the 1969 case People v. Stamp, a group of men robbed a store at gunpoint. One of the clerks, who had been made to lie on the floor and was threatened during the robbery, died of a heart attack a couple hours later. The robbers were convicted of felony murder. They appealed the conviction, saying there was insufficient evidence that the robbery had caused the clerk’s death. An appeals court in California disagreed and upheld the conviction, saying “but for the robbery the victim would not have experienced the fright which brought on the fatal heart attack.”
Cha Ho, Kang’s wife, has reportedly welcomed the felony murder charge. “You kill people, you have to be punished,” she told the Mercury News.