What is the “merger” doctrine, and does it apply in Mississippi?

The “merger doctrine” has to do with the Double Jeopardy Clause, which is included in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Most everyone has a basic understanding of double jeopardy; it prevents you from being tried, convicted, and sentenced for the same crime twice.  The doctrine of “merger” allegedly alleviates problems with double jeopardy.  If you only do one criminal act, but it can be charged several different ways, the doctrine of “merger” is supposed to save you from being punished several times for only one criminal act.  You commit one act, you are charged with one crime, and you’ll be sentenced only once.

Here is an example of how merger is supposed to operate:



Mississippi does not follow the doctrine of merger.  In 1986, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided that Mississippi would not follow the merger doctrine, at least in a murder context.  Someone broke into a home with the intent to kill a person (that would fit the crime of burglary, which is the breaking and entering of a dwelling house (where someone lives) with the intent to commit a crime inside).  And if someone is killed while you are in the commission of certain other felonies in Mississippi, regular murder can be elevated to capital murder.   But the person did actually kill someone, and they argued on appeal that Mississippi should adopt the “merger doctrine,” and hold that they should have only been convicted of murder, and not capital murder.  The Court held:

We decline to adopt the merger doctrine and hold that under our felony-murder statute, the underlying felony does not merge into the murder. Our statutory provisions dealing with murder and the particular felony, in this case, burglary, are intended to protect different societal interests. When the appellant entered the home of [a person] with the intent to commit a crime therein, i.e., to kill [the victim], the burglary was complete and the subsequent killing of [the victim] elevated the crime of murder to that of capital murder. We find the appellant’s argument unpersuasive.

Smith v. State, 499 So.2d 750, 754 (Miss. 1986).  Merger (at least in this context) has been rejected in every Mississippi appellate court decision since then.