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Defending Against Murder Charges: A Step-by-Step Guide

November 16, 2023

Defending Against Murder Charges: A Step-by-Step Guide

A murder case is daunting for an accused. The stakes are high, and it’s imperative that your lawyer understands how to handle this type of accusation. At Chernoff Law, we are committed to helping our clients tread confidently through the process, equipped with a firm knowledge of the facts and a solid defense. In this guide, we will delve into the different types of homicide charges, what the prosecution must prove, and unpack common defense strategies.

Types of Homicide Charges

Homicide, by definition, is the act of one person causing the death of another. However, not all homicides are Murders and not all Murders are created equal. In Texas, they vary based on intent and circumstances. Here are the most common:

  • Murder: This typically refers to the intentional killing of a human being. It is a first degree felony, carrying with it a range of punishment between 5 years and Life.  “Premeditation” is not required. All that is required is that the actor intentionally or knowingly caused the death and it was a voluntary act. Under Texas Penal Code §19.02, there are three ways for Murder to occur:
    • Intentionally or knowingly causing the death of another individual;
    • Intentionally causing serious bodily injury and doing an act clearly dangerous to human life, which causes the death of another individual; and 
    • Commits a felony and in the course of commission, does an act clearly dangerous to human life, which causes the death of an individual. 
  • Capital Murder: A person commits Capital Murder if he intentionally causes the death of another human being and one or more of the following circumstances exist:
    • The victim was a peace officer or fireman on duty
    • The victim was a child under the age of 15
    • The victim was a Judge and the murder was for retaliation
    • The murder is done for remuneration
    • The murder was done by a prisoner in a penal institution or during an escape from a penal institution. 
  • Manslaughter: This type of killing is not intended. It covers reckless acts that cause the death of an individual. For example, if someone is waiving a gun around aimlessly and it goes off, killing a nearby person, this may be charged as manslaughter. This is usually a second degree felony, punishable by 2-20 years in prison. 
  • Criminally negligent homicide: This is similar to Voluntary Manslaughter except that the level of carelessness does not rise to the level of “reckless”. This is when an individual’s gross negligence leads to someone’s death. The main difference between this and involuntary manslaughter is the degree of negligence. For a charge of criminally negligent homicide, the negligence must be so severe that it shows a complete disregard for human life.
  • Intoxication Manslaughter: Texas Penal Code §49.08 makes it a second degree felony for a person to cause the death of another by accident or mistake due to driving while intoxicated. This can include driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Other jurisdictions have different homicide designations. It’s essential to understand that the specifics of these charges and their definitions can vary significantly between jurisdictions. For a comprehensive understanding of any particular charge, it’s advisable to consult local laws and legal professionals.

Key Elements the Prosecution Must Prove

The burden of proof always lies with the prosecution. They must convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt. For a homicide conviction, certain elements are paramount:

  • Actus Reus (The Criminal Act): The prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant committed a criminal act. In the context of homicide, this typically means proving that the defendant’s voluntary actions directly resulted in the death of the victim. 
  • Causation: Beyond just committing a criminal act, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s actions were a direct (or substantial) cause of the death. There should be a clear link between the defendant’s act and the outcome.
  • Mens Rea (The Criminal Intent):
    • For Murder, they must prove intent to kill or serious bodily injury or knowledge that the result was likely to happen. 
    • For Manslaughter, they need to prove the defendant’s actions were reckless and that these actions led directly to death.
    • For Negligent Homicide, they might need to prove gross negligence by the defendant caused the death of another.
  • The Victim Was Alive Before the Act: This might seem obvious, but it’s a crucial legal point. This differentiates homicide from other offenses, such as abuse of a corpse or other post-mortem crimes.
  • Absence of Justification: There are some justifications, that if raised by the defendant, must be disproved by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt. These justifications include:
    • Self-defense: The prosecution must negate claims that the defendant was acting in self-defense. 
    • Defense of another: In some situations a person is justified in using deadly force in order to protect a third party. .
    • Necessity: In some cases, a killing is necessary to prevent greater harm.
  • Specific Factors for Different Types:
    • For felony murder, the prosecution needs to prove that the death occurred during the commission of a qualifying felony.
    • For intoxication manslaughter, they must prove the death was caused by the intoxication of the defendant.

Common Defense Strategies

Crafting a solid defense strategy is usually the key to avoiding an unjust conviction. Depending on the case specifics, several avenues can be pursued:

  • Alibi: The simplest defense. If you can prove you were somewhere else when the crime occurred, it undermines the prosecution’s case.
  • Self-defense: If the defendant believed he had to act because he was in immediate danger, killing in self-defense can be a valid justification.
  • Mental incapacity: If a defendant was unable to understand their actions were wrong due to a mental disorder they might be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
  • Mistaken identity: Misidentifications happen. Proving that the police arrested the wrong person can lead to an acquittal.
  • Evidence challenges: Any irregularities or illegal methods used in evidence collection can lead to that evidence being dismissed.
  • Reasonable Doubt: If any element of the State’s case is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense must highlight this during the case. 

Contact an Experienced Homicide Defense Lawyer at Chernoff Law for a Free Consultation About Your Case Today

Homicide charges are among the most severe allegations one can face in the judicial system. Understanding the charges and possible defense strategies is a critical step toward ensuring justice is served.

If you or a loved one find yourself facing such charges, remember that legal expertise is invaluable. At Chernoff Law, we are dedicated to helping our clients navigate these challenging circumstances. You don’t have to face this journey alone; our experienced team is here to support, advise, and advocate for you.

Reach out to Chernoff Law today and let our expertise be your guiding light in these turbulent times.

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