New study shines light on extreme sentences for unjust felony murder convictions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On March 23, the Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution released an extensive analysis of the United States’ fundamentally flawed felony murder laws – a legal landscape at odds with the rest of the world. Felony murder occurs when a person participates in a felony, such as a robbery, that results in someone’s death. Felony murder laws compel harsh decades-long – or even life – sentences even when the individual charged did not directly cause or intend the loss of life. The report, Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing, explains tthousands of Americans will remain behind bars their entire lives, even though they do not pose a public safety risk, based on extreme sentencing provisions.

The report recounts the personal stories of people serving life sentences for felony murder. Emmanuel Mendoza, for example, was 19 when he took part in a robbery that ended in his accomplice fatally shooting the victim. Although Mendoza did not have a weapon and the killing had not been planned, he was convicted of felony murder with special circumstances and automatically sentenced to life without parole.

Despite extreme concerns with felony murder laws, 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system allow life without parole (LWOP) sentences for felony murder convictions – and many jurisdictions mandate such sentences. These laws have particularly adverse impacts on young people of color and women.

The report also explains that extreme sentences for felony murder do little to protect public safety. An abundance of research shows that people age out of crime. And many of the people serving time for felony murder have already been imprisoned for decades. 

Other key findings include:

Approximately half of California's LWOP population was convicted of felony murder, based on a sample of 2,300 individuals who comprised half of the state's LWOP population.

In 2019, 1,166 Pennsylvanians were serving LWOP for felony murder—accounting for nearly one-quarter of the state's LWOP population. 

In Cook County, Illinois, eight out of 10 people sentenced under the felony murder rule between 2010 and 2020 were Black.

LWOP is prohibited for felony murder convictions in 155 of the 193 United Nations member states. Most countries that do impose LWOP sentences do so only sparingly. The United States is a glaring exception.

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice. Fair and Just Prosecution is a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms. To learn more about FJP’s work, visit the FJP website and follow FJP on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.