The Felony Murder Rule is a rule that attributes liability to an accomplice for a murder even if the accomplice was not the actual killer. In California, an accomplice (also referred to as an aider and abettor) to a crime can be charged, convicted, and sentenced for first- or second- degree murder just by the simple fact that he or she participated in a crime where a murder occurred. In fact, for some serious crimes such as burglary, robbery, or rape, an accomplice to the crime could even be sentenced to death even though he or she did not commit the actual killing.
For example, Jack and Jill scheme to steal a pail of very high value liquid from a woman who lives up on a hill. Jack is armed; he is the one who will take the pail by force or fear (robbery). Jill’s role is to coax the woman out of her house so the robbery can be accomplished. Jack and Jill do not plan to murder anyone; they only want the pail and its contents. Jill lures the woman outside where Jack is waiting. Jack springs from behind some bushes, points the gun at the woman, and demands the pail. As this is happening, Jill spots a neighbor with a shotgun who is witnessing this event. Jill warns Jack and in a sudden panic, he shoots and kills the neighbor. Jack and Jill then run down the hill without the pail of liquid. Much to their surprise, the cops are waiting for them at the bottom of the hill because the neighbor’s wife had called 911. They are both arrested and charged with attempted robbery and murder.
Jill never expected Jack to kill anyone; in fact, he had told her that the gun was not loaded. None of that matters for purposes of the felony murder rule. It is enough that Jill participated in a crime that had the inherent risk of death. It doesn’t matter if the death was intentional, negligent or even accidental.