Back in May of 2011, Mervin Bettis attempted to shoplift $1,100 worth of razor blade cartridges from a Target store on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. Retired FBI agent Russell Horner was one of two Target-employed security officers who struggled with Bettis as he tried to flee the store.
Moments after the officers got Bettis handcuffed, Horner collapsed, suffering a heart attack. He died an hour later.
Bettis, described by his family as a compulsive shoplifter, was charged with third-degree murder for Horner’s death. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
A person can be charged with felony murder if a death occurs during the commission of a felony (the specific crime must be one of a list of qualifying felonies in the statute and is generally an inherently dangerous crime). Felony murder can be charged as first- or second-degree murder. When the resulting death (in this case, the death of Horner) occurred during the commission of a non-inherently dangerous felony without a deadly intention or design by the perpetrator, it is generally charged as a third-degree murder. Third-degree murder is a second-degree felony and carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
The concept of felony murder comes from English common law, though British Parliament did away with the legal concept there in the 1950s. Three states in the U.S. have abolished felony murder statutes. Many other states retain the concept but in a more restricted manner than the Florida statute.
In this case, the value of the razor blades Bettis attempted to steal from Target raised the theft to felony level status. The felony theft served as the underlying felony charge to support a charge of third-degree “felony murder”. Bettis was given credit for a year and eight months he already has served in jail.