In People of the State of Michigan v. Tiffany Lynn Richard, Michigan Supreme Court ruled today that a defendant may assert a duress defense against a felony-murder charge.
What Happened in the Case?
The defendant Tiffany Richard was charged with open murder, essentially under a felony-murder theory, with the underlying felony being armed robbery. Ms. Richard agreed to help her boyfriend in a robbery. She knocked on the victim’s door to his home and was a lookout. Ms. Richard’s boyfriend went inside the house where he stabbed the victim. She then drove her boyfriend to his mother’s house, where she helped him dispose of his bloody clothing.
Ms. Richard claimed she helped her boyfriend because he had physically and sexually abused her in the past.
The case comes from Jackson County Circuit Court. Defendant filed a pre-trial motion to have the judge to give a legal instruction on duress to the jury. The Court granted the motion to provide the jury instruction. The prosecution appealed. The Court of Appeals overruled the trial court judge. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the jury instruction on duress cannot be given because the duress is not a defense to a murder charge. The Defendant’s argument is that duress can be a defense to a felony-murder charge because the duress relates to the underlying felony involved in felony-murder, not to the intent to commit a murder.
Michigan law holds that duress is not a defense against a murder charge. The rationale is that a person who is under duress must choose between saving themselves and saving an innocent person. The person under duress cannot choose the innocent person to die over themselves.
But what if the charge is felony-murder rather than just murder? Before we get to that answer, we need to define the terms of duress, felony-murder, and murder.
What is the Duress Defense?
Duress is an affirmative defense to a criminal charge. An affirmative defense is where the defendant acknowledges that the crime happened but that the crime is justified based on a certain reason. For a jury to be told about duress as a defense, the Defendant must show some evidence related to the defense.
Duress means a person committed a crime because they were threatened with death or serious harm and committing the crime was the only way to avoid that fate.
What is Felony-Murder?
A person is guilty of felony-murder where someone dies during the commission of a specified felony. Such felonies might include first or third-degree criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, or carjacking (Generally the most serious felonies). What must be shown for a conviction is that the person intended to commit or did commit a specific felony and did so with the intent to kill or with disregard to the natural consequences of the felony that someone may die. Essentially, felony-murder elevates a second-degree murder to first-degree murder if the murder occurred during the course of a felony.
In contrast, a straight murder charge involves an intent to kill without an intent to commit a different felony at the same time.
The Michigan Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court decided that duress is a defense to felony-murder. The decision goes back to the rationale for why duress is not a defense to murder. Remember, duress is not a defense to murder because if the decisions comes down to sparing your own life or another person’s life, we are expected to spare the other person’s life. The Supreme Court reasoned that when it comes to felony-murder, that decision is not presented. The choice then is between sparing your own life or committing a felony, not necessarily murdering another person.
Duress is a defense to felonies other than murder. To not allow duress as a defense to felony-murder could lead to weird results. Specifically, a person could raise duress in defense to a felony-murder charge, be acquitted of the felony, but be found guilty of felony-murder. Or in another scenario, a person is urged to commit a felony under duress, and a co-defendant kills someone during the felony. (This last example is a similar scenario to what happened in this case. Where Richard’s co-defendant killed someone without Richard’s knowledge).
Ms. Richard’s case has not gone to trial yet. This Supreme Court decision came about because of a pre-trial motion and appeal by the prosecution. It remains to be seen what will happen. She can now present the defense of duress to the jury.
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