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The Mens Rea for Felony Murder of a Child

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by: Ryan Scott • November 4, 2023 • no comments

This is going to be a very short post on a very complicated issue. Really more of an update.

Assume a horrible accusation. The defendant is accused of assaulting a child, and the child dies as a result. To be guilty of "felony murder" in this situation, as opposed to a straight murder, the defendant does not need to intend the death of the child. But does the defendant have to at least know they are causing serious physical injury? Or is negligence enough, i.e., they fail to be aware of a substantial risk of causing serious physical injury?

Post-Owen/Shiffer cases, the state will argue that the answer is "negligence." But Owen and Shiffer involved the Assault II and criminal mistreatment statutes where the legislative intent was unknown. Consequently, Owen and Shiffer are good cases for determining what attorneys and courts should do when the legislative intent is unknown -- at least in the context of assault -- but they tell us nothing about what to do when the legislative intent is clear.

And they don't need to. If the legislative intent is clear, then we go with what the legislature intended. Pretty fundamental principle.

In this case, the legislative intent is remarkably unambiguous. I have it if you need it. Prosecutor after prosecutor testified that for the crime of felony murder of a child resulting from assault, the defendant must know or intend to cause serious physical injury.

Last month in Multnomah County, a judge agreed with the defense that the defendant must know or intend serious physical injury in order to be guilty of felony murder under this particular theory. It came up in the context of a bail hearing. It appears the State of Oregon will be filing a petition for a writ of mandamus on this issue, which means it will go straight to the Oregon Supreme Court. Such writs go on a much faster timeline than direct appeals, so if the state does follow through, we should have an answer within months.