News & Events

Recently several persons have pleaded guilty to Murder on the ‘Felony Murder principle’. The guilty person then received a term of years instead of the death penalty despite pleading guilty to Murder. This has caused some confusion amongst regular citizens who don’t understand what the ‘Felony Murder principle’ is and how it operates. 

What is the ‘Felony Murder Principle’
The Felony Murder rule is a rule which developed with our former English colonial rulers and was adopted into the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. The effect of it is to make those who engage in serious crimes of violence (Felonies) liable for Murder if death, even unintentionally, resulted.

This rule, although abolished in England in 1957, became a creature of statute in Trinidad and Tobago and is now found in section 2A of the Criminal Law Act of Trinidad and Tobago. In its current form the rule provides, simply, that where someone embarks upon the commission of an arrestable offence involving violence and someone is killed, all persons involved in the commission of the arrestable offence (or any other arrestable offence involving violence that arises) are guilty of Murder. An arrestable offence involving violence is one where you can be sentenced to a prison term of 5 years or more and the offence by its nature is a violent offence. This can include a number of offences such as Robbery and Kidnapping. The offence is more accurately described as ‘violent arrestable offence murder’ as Trinidad and Tobago abolished the distinction between felonies and misdemeanours at common law and our definition of arrestable offence makes the rule applicable to offences which it was not previously. 

What is the purpose of the ‘Felony Murder principle’?
The purpose of the Felony Murder Principle is to act as a strong deterrent or warning to potential offenders who set out to commit violent offences against fellow citizens of the State. It reminds potential offenders that they will not escape liability for deaths that occur during the course of commissions of violent arrestable offences.

How does the principle operate in practice?
A practical example of the operation of the principle would be where during the course of a robbery Tristan tries to fight Jack who is attempting to rob him while armed with a firearm and Jack fires a warming shot hitting and killing an innocent bystander, Jack would be liable for murder under the felony murder principle whether or not he had the intention (to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm on the innocent bystander).

Another practical example would be where John, Baboolal and Chang set out to rob a jewellery store. John and Baboolal only desire to steal the money with a view to paying their mounting debts. Chang however, unknown to John and Baboolal, wants to test out his 9mm Magnum Firearm by shooting someone during the course of that robbery. Chang subsequently shoots and kills a patron present in the store. John and Baboolal can be charged along with Chang with murder under this principle. It doesn’t matter whether only Chang caused the death of the deceased, and the others did not intend that anyone should die. They are all liable for murder. 

Is the ‘Felony Murder principle’ fair?
Opponents of the principle suggest however that the rule is illogical, unjust, and unnecessary in that it makes someone liable for what can be sometimes seen as an unintended consequence. Under the principle it does not matter whether a person who sets out to commit the violent arrestable offence intended to kill the victim. This applies even where the death that occurs is accidental as it happened during the course of the commission of a violent arrestable offence. In this way, the principle is an exception to the normal rules which govern the prosecution of Murders. In a normal murder prosecution (not under the felony murder principle), the prosecutor will have to prove that the Defendant had an intention to kill or cause really serious bodily harm. 

Advocates of the principle however argue that the principle exists to protect society from persons who commit serious criminal offences. An offender(s) who set out to commit violent criminal offences must bear liability for any consequential death which results from their actions. In other words, the message of the State is “Stay away from violent or serious crime”.

Why are ‘Felony Murder’ cases sentenced differently from Capital Murder cases?
Now that we know what the Felony Murder principle is, we will next explore why persons convicted under the principle are treated differently and generally given a term of years when sentenced as opposed to persons who are convicted of Capital Murder where the penalty is death.

Submitted by: 
Ravindra Rajah
Public Defender 11 
Public Defenders’ Department 
Legal Aid and Advisory Authority,
23 Stanmore Avenue, Port of Spain.
Contact: 638-5222 
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in The Trinidad Express News Paper on Wednesday 5th December, 2023