Commonwealth v. Brown




Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Citation and Year

477 Mass. 805 (2017)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

common law felony murder rule

Nature of Case

Timothy Brown was convicted of first degree felony murder based on several non-homicide predicate felonies. The Court examined the scope of criminal liability under the state’s common-law felony murder rule.


The strict-liability felony murder rule is no longer an independent theory of liability for murder; a conviction for murder requires proof of malice.


A majority of justices, through the concurrence of Chief Justice Gants, narrowed the scope of felony-murder liability going forward but declined to apply the ruling retroactively. Going forward, commission of a felony is not “constructive” malice, and thus felony murder is no longer an independent theory of murder.

Notable Dissents / Concurrences

Chief Justice Gants wrote separately, joined by three other justices, to abrogate future application of the felony murder rule. “We have recognized that the application of the felony murder rule erodes the relation between criminal liability and moral culpability,” wrote Gants. “It is time for us to eliminate the last vestige of these two abandoned principles and end their application in our common law of felony murder. Doing so means that criminal liability for murder in the first or second degree will be predicated on proof that the defendant acted with malice or shared the intent of a joint venturer who acted with malice. The sole remaining function of felony murder will be to elevate what would otherwise be murder in the second degree to murder in the first degree where the killing occurs during the commission of a life felony.”