A felony is the most serious type of crime a person can commit. A felony carries a sentence of over one year in prison, and some felonies can be punishable by death. Convicted felons serve their sentences in state or federal prisons, rather than the city or county jail. Three crimes classified as felonies are murder, burglary and rape.
The common law defines murder as the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought. In order for a prosecutor to prove murder, he must show that a defendant's act (or failure to act if the defendant had a duty to act) caused the death of a living human being. The prosecutor must also prove that the defendant acted with malice aforethought. A defendant has exhibited malice when she possessed the intent to kill a living human being, or had knowledge that her act would kill a human being; the intent to inflict serious bodily harm on a living human being, causing death; a "depraved heart" manifested in reckless conduct showing an extreme indifference to the value of human life; or when a death occurred during the defendant's commission of a dangerous felony.
Burglary occurs when a person breaks into and enters the dwelling of another with the intent to commit a felony inside the dwelling. Forceful entry is not a requirement; however, the defendant must open a door, window, or create some opening to enter the dwelling. To be considered "entry," the defendant must physically place some part of his body or an instrument into the building. Under common law, only a dwelling or building used for sleeping would qualify for a burglary offense. Modern statutes, however, have done away with the requirement that the place entered must be used for sleeping. Under common law, burglary could only happen at night, but some modern statutes have done away with this requirement. At the time the defendant entered the dwelling, she must have entered with the intent to commit a felony inside.
Under common law, rape is defined as a male gaining carnal knowledge of a female through sexual intercourse, including vaginal penetration, when the male was not married to the female. The carnal knowledge must be gained through force or coercion and without consent. Many jurisdictions have changed the laws on rape. Modern statutes state that rape can be committed by both males and females. They have eliminated the marital exception, and other sexual acts such as oral and anal penetration can qualify as rape.
Felonies have common law definitions, but states can and have created their own statutes interpreting many crimes as felonies. The statutory definition may differ from the common law definition, and one state's definition of a crime will likely differ from another state's definition of the same crime. Therefore, it is important to consult state laws for more information on the above-listed felonies.