Let’s say (hypothetically, of course) that you have fallen in with the wrong crowd, and they persuade you to drive them to a place where they plan to commit a robbery. While they are committing the crime, something goes wrong and one of them gets fatally shot by the intended victim. The police catch up with you later, and you learn that among the charges against you is… first-degree murder.
“Wait,” you ask, “how can I be accused of murder when I was only the getaway driver, wasn’t there when the shooting happened, and on top of that it was one of my alleged cohorts that got killed? I can see a charge of conspiracy, sure, but I didn’t kill anybody!”
This is not just a made-up example to illustrate a theoretical possibility; something very similar happened in Broken Arrow in late March when three teenagers died during an attempted home invasion. Their alleged getaway driver now stands accused of first-degree murder and burglary in connection with the events that led to their deaths.
The law of principals and accessories in Oklahoma
This outcome can come about because of the way that Oklahoma law treats felony-level crimes that involve multiple perpetrators. In this state, if you participate even indirectly in the commission of a crime (such as “aiding or abetting” someone else), then you can be treated the same as if you had committed it yourself. The legal term for this is being a “principal” to the crime, as opposed to being an “accessory” to it. The main difference between a principal and an accessory to a felony (there are no accessories to misdemeanors) is that an accessory is involved after the crime.
So how does this translate into three counts of murder on the part of a getaway driver, when the three victims were her alleged accomplices? This is where the law of “felony murder” comes into play.
What is felony murder?
As the name suggests, felony murder happens when a person dies because of an act or event which happened during the commission of a felony. Oklahoma law establishes the specific felonies that qualify, including but not limited to:
- Robbery with a dangerous weapon
- Escape from police custody
- First-degree burglary or arson
- Drug trafficking
The “commission” of the felony includes activities like doing something necessary to complete the crime, or fleeing from the immediate scene of the crime.
Putting it all together
In the case from Broken Arrow, the person who was arrested was allegedly acting as the getaway driver for the three teens who died when the owner of the home they were breaking into shot them. She is being charged with the following crimes:
- Burglary: Can being an alleged getaway driver for a home-invasion burglary attempt qualify the driver as a “principal” herself in the felony of burglary?
- Murder: Can allegedly agreeing to help transport people who attempted to commit a felony (burglary) qualify for a charge of felony murder when people die during the attempt?
It is not our purpose here to answer these questions, which is the proper role for a jury if the case goes to trial. And we must remember that these are “alleged” crimes, and that the accused is still presumed innocent until convicted. What is important to remember here is how the law in Oklahoma can tie you into the acts of others. Knowing in detail the legal elements that the state must prove to make you a principal to a felony even when you were not present, or even a murder suspect for a killing you played no direct role in, is the foundation upon which a defense attorney must rely upon when examining the facts and evidence that are being used against you. Only in this way can you be confident of receiving the best possible legal defense.
For more information, contact the skilled lawyers at the Hunsucker Legal Group at 405-231-5600