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I saw on the news that all three defendants were found guilty of murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I watched the verdict video and noticed the charges, and became confused when I heard that they each had been charged with 5 counts of murder.

Each defendant was charged with one count of malice murder and four counts of felony murder, a total of five murder charges for each defendant.

How is that possible? Why and how can they put four felony murder charges on each person when they murdered one man?

Is this because of federal law or Georgia state law?

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Georgia doesn't have degrees of murder, but instead has malice murder and felony murder. Neither requires prosecutors to prove an intent to kill.

  1. The three men demonstrated “malice aforethought” when they jointly and illegally chased Arbery through the streets in pickup trucks and shot him. That's the basis for the malice murder charge.

  2. The three men were charged with jointly intentionally committing four felonies each — two counts of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Each of those felonies caused Arbery's death. Thus four felony murder charges each.

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Felony murder is a charge brought when a person P, who is committing a felony, regardless of intent to harm or kill another person Q, causes the death of Q.

The defendants in this case had committed several felony crimes during the chase and confrontation afterwards, variously

  • aggravated assault

  • false imprisonment

  • criminal attempt to commit felony

Note that the resulting verdicts on felony murder match the verdicts on individual felonies: defendant Bryan was found not guilty of aggravated assault (using a firearm - Bryan did not take a weapon when he joined the chase) and therefore not guilty on one count of felony murder.

He was found guilty on the other charge of aggravated assault (using a vehicle) and therefore of that count of felony murder.

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It is quite normal that someone gets charged with multiple charges for the same act, for example to get charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, negligent killing, dangerous driving (if you run over someone with your car and kill them).

The prosecutor would have to prove that you killed someone except for the last charge. So someone is dead and you were the cause. Once that is proved, it may be the case that you fulfil all the criteria to be guilty of first degree murder, or maybe not. And if not, then it may be the case that you fulfil all the criteria to be guilty of second degree murder, or maybe not. And so on.

I think in the USA you may be convicted for multiple charges, but will only only be punished for the highest charge. So you won't get 40 years for 1st degree + 20 years for second degree + 10 years for manslaughter, but "only" the 40 years. In the future, you might manage to get the case re-examined and be found not guilty of 1st degree murder, with the 2nd degree charge standing.

Another situation is where you did two actions that were separate crimes, like kidnap and murder.

And very rarely a prosecutor will try to cajole a jury into giving a higher conviction by not charging the lower one. Assume there is a case where it is beyond any doubt whatsoever that someone committed at least second degree murder, but there is reasonable doubt about first degree murder. And the prosecutor charges only 1st degree but not 2nd degree murder. So the jury has only two possibilities: Not guilty (let someone walk who is definitely guilty of murder) or 1st degree murder (when there is reasonable doubt). That's a very dangerous game for the prosecutor.

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    You're missing something critical: the United States (with the possible exception of Louisiana) follows the merger doctrine, where you can't be convicted of both a less serious offense (eg. larceny) and a more serious offense that includes all elements of the lesser (eg. robbery). Turns out that in Georgia, neither "felony murder" nor "malice murder" is a lesser included offense of the other.
    – Mark
    Nov 30 '21 at 2:53

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