“Felony murder” is one of the most unique theories of American law. This doctrine holds that a group engaged in the commission of a felony is guilty of murder if one among them kills another during commission of the crime.
The precise definition of felony murder varies from state to state.
In Massachusetts, the law defines first degree murder as “murder committed with deliberately premeditated malice aforethought … OR in the commission or attempted commission of a crime.”
Unlike the underlying doctrine of actual first-degree murder, conviction of first-degree murder under the joint-venture theory does not depend upon the relation of the killing and the offender’s mental state.i
Throughout the United States, first degree murder is predicated on a basic principle that the homicide is willful, premeditated and deliberate.
Not so with felony murder.
The murder of Yngve Raustein provides a clear example of how this cruel law holds some people accountable for the acts of others.
Since his arrest, Joe Donovan has steadfastly insisted that he had no knowledge that Shon McHugh was armed or that McHugh had intent to kill.ii Donovan also has consistently insisted there was no underlying plan among himself, McHugh, and Velez to commit any felony crimes.iii
The typical example of a felony murder is when a group commits armed robbery and one of the criminals kills the victim. Even if the death were accidental, all of the participants can be found guilty, including unarmed participants.
The Middlesex D.A. used the felony murder theory by claiming that McHugh, Velez and Donovan set out to commit robbery (breaking into ‘lockers’) and thus the death of Raustein was the result of their ‘joint venture.’ Velez’s admitted theft of $3 from Yngve Raustein’s companion formed the basis for an actual felony, armed robbery.
The evidence supporting the felony murder claim in the Donovan trial was based primarily on Velez’ testimony. Moreover, its application in the Donovan case came amid a highly publicized and highly charged atmosphere surrounding sensitive “town-gown” relations between Cambridge and its university community.
Compare the handling of the Donovan matter with the famous case of Katherine Ann Power and Susan Saxe, two students at Brandeis University who actively participated in armed robberies during 1970. During one robbery, Powers’ and Saxe’s accomplices murdered 42-year-old Boston Police officer Walter Schroeder as he attempted to intervene. Saxe and Power fled after the officer’s cold-blooded killing. Saxe was captured in Philadelphia in 1975. She served five years in prison for her crime. She was not tried under the joint venture theory. Power eluded capture for more than 20 years, living under assumed aliases. She eventually turned herself in 1993 – and served six years under a negotiated plea for manslaughter. She also was not tried under the joint venture theory. Neither was a third accomplice, who testified against the gunman.
Joe Donovan’s role in the Raustein tragedy is clear. He was guilty of unprovoked assault and battery and under-aged drinking – not murder. Joe Donovan did not kill Yngve Raustein.
Shon McHugh alone is guilty of murder. He savagely knifed Yngve Raustein and stole the future of a student with a bright future.
i Source: The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 66, #3.
ii Trial testimony: Joseph Donovan
iii Trial testimony: Joseph Donovan