By: Mark Diaz
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Common Questions On Homicide And Manslaughter In Texas
Homicide is one of the most serious crimes a person can be charged with. In this legal Q&A Galveston County criminal defense attorney answers common questions on homicide and manslaughter.
Is it legal to kill for self-defense?
I don’t like the way that question is worded. When you say is it legal to kill for self-defense it makes it sound like there’s some malice intended, maybe that’s just me in the way I’m reading it. Generally speaking though, yes. Self-defense is a defense to the use of force, which would lead to death. So in the proper circumstances, if you’re in fear for your life, and feel like there is no other option, you may use lethal force as self-defense, and therefore you could kill in self-defense, although again I don’t like the way that question is phrased.
Is the stand my ground law defense for homicide?
The way that that question is asked, it is. We don’t call it “stand my ground” in Texas, which became popular with several cases that were televised. If you are in your house, and an intruder is coming into your property, for whatever reason, you may use lethal force to stop that intruder, you do not have to retreat. That is a defense as well. Several years ago, there was a case in Pasadena where they were breaking into a neighbor’s house and a man went and defended his neighbor’s house and used lethal force. The grand jury did not indict that man, he was not charged.
Can you shoot someone who’s trying to break into your vehicle?
No. That would be excessive to kill someone for trying to break into your vehicle. The law doesn’t recognize the defense of property, such as the defense of a vehicle, as a life-threatening situation. You cannot shoot someone simply for trying to commit the misdemeanor offense of breaking into your vehicle.
How long would you be in jail for murder?
That’s a general question that people ask with every offense, and there’s no simple answer. It depends on who the victim is, the circumstances of the crime, etc. There are just so many variables that go into it. I know of cases where people have received sentences as little as 12 years for murder. In that specific case that I’m speaking of, it was a man who shot and killed a dope dealer that was taking advantage of his wife. Just a strange set of circumstances you don’t find every day.
So there is no general answer for how long would you be in jail for murder because every case and every fact situation is different. It also depends on the decedent. All of the facts will be taken into consideration when trying to figure out a punishment. Then, of course, it depends on whether or not we’re talking about a plea bargain agreement, or if the jury is assessing punishment. Either way, though, all of the facts will be taken into account before assessing punishment.
What are the four types of homicide?
In Texas, we have four types of homicide. I’ll list the four and then we can go through each one, we have murder, we have capital murder, we have manslaughter, and then we have a criminally negligent homicide.
Probably the most common of these that is charged is murder. That is intentionally or knowingly causing the death of an individual. It also gets more complicated. It can be that you intended to cause serious bodily injury, and committed an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual. Or attempts to commit a felony other than manslaughter, and in the course of, commits an act clearly dangerous to human life, that causes the death. We refer to that as felony murder.
In other words, while you’re robbing the bank, the teller gets shot. We call that felony murder. That would mean that everyone involved in the robbery can be charged with that person’s murder for participating in the original felony. This murder is probably what is most often charged.
I would venture to say the most publicized is going to be capital murder. The reason that’s going to be the most publicized is that for one, it can carry the death penalty, but also, it can be charged in so many ways. The number one way is killing a police officer or a fireman that’s in the discharge of their duties as a public servant. The second way is murdering in the course of committing or attempting to commit kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat. Another way is killing two people in the same criminal episode.
I have tried that case, as a capital, my client was accused of shooting a man inside of a bar. When he was trying to get out of the bar, another patron tried to stop him and he shot that man and killed him as well. He was charged with capital murder, for killing two people in the same episode. He was found guilty and he got capital life, which means life without the possibility of parole.
There are other ways. One is if you commit murder while escaping, or attempting to escape from a penal institution, meaning jail or prison. Killing someone employed in the prison is not too common. Capital murder I think is the most publicized, simply because we see that on TV more than we see a regular murder. Murders are charged, quite often and frequently, unfortunately, but they don’t make the paper or the news. Whereas capital murder always does, because of the circumstances surrounding the murder.
If it’s an officer, it’s going to be on the news. If it’s killing two people, it’s going to be on the news. You might see that more in the news, but in actuality, it’s not charged as often.
Manslaughter And Criminally Negligent Homicide
Then we have manslaughter. A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual. That’s pretty clear.
Then criminally negligent homicide is if you cause the death of an individual by criminal negligence. That one, honestly I don’t see much. It’s very rare. Manslaughter is often what we will seek in a murder trial, we will seek a lesser included offense to the jury of manslaughter, depending of course on the circumstances that led to the decedent’s demise.
It’s hard for me to get facts specific because each case can be a different set of circumstances. One thing defense attorneys try to do in all trials if we feel it’s appropriate is seek a lesser for the jury claiming that the defense’s claim is that the conduct didn’t rise to the level of the charge, but rather to the lesser. That’s where we are on the four ways to charge homicide in Texas. If you have any questions more specific than that, let me know and we can get into it.
Is killing someone in a car accident manslaughter?
It can be. Let’s leave out the intoxication offenses which we can talk about another time. Depending upon the circumstances of the accident, yes, you could be charged with manslaughter. You’d have to give me a fact-specific scenario to tell you for sure.
Accidents can be just accidents, and that doesn’t mean that there needs to be criminal responsibility. Racing could raise the stakes. If you are engaged in illegal street racing, and a wreck ensues, and someone dies, that raises the stakes.
Unfortunately, people die in automobile accidents every day, but that’s not necessarily criminal. You would have to look at the facts that led up to the accident to determine whether or not the district attorney would attempt to seek charges against an individual. Again, I want to stay away from the intoxication aspect because that’s a whole other conversation.
Can you be held responsible just for being present when someone else kills someone?
Generally speaking, the answer is going to be no. However, I would want to know what the circumstances were. If you’re at a party, and two guys get into an argument, and there are lots of people there, and one of them pulls out a gun and shoots the other, no one is responsible except the shooter.
If you and someone else went over to someone’s apartment, house, whatever, with the intent to rob them, and then you didn’t know it but the person you’re going to do the robbery with, pulls out a gun and shoots the homeowner, since you were there to commit a robbery, you’re going to be on the line for the murder as well, under the felony murder rule.
In that case, you would be held responsible just for being present when someone else killed someone. If you have no involvement in whatever the circumstances are that led up to the killing of that person, then no, you wouldn’t be charged with the crime just for being present. You would have to have participated in something to do with the crime before you could be charged.
How do you defend homicide charges in Texas?
I can’t answer that without a fact scenario. Again, every case is different. How do I know how to defend any case over another case without knowing the facts? We always look for something and find a way to defend everyone. Remember that when we try cases, it is not guilty vs innocent, it is guilty vs not guilty. Innocence is not a choice for the jury.
The state has the burden of proof to prove the case against my client. That burden doesn’t shift to me ever as the defense attorney. Whether or not the state can meet its burden is the question. It’s not a question of actual innocence. Most of the time when you’re in a jury trial if the state can’t make the case and we win, actual innocence doesn’t come into play. Can the state meet its burden? That’s what I’m looking for.
If I can find a way to exploit something, so that the state cannot meet their burden, well that’s to my client’s benefit. I think we have about five murders in the office right now. None of them will be defended the same way. They each have a unique set of facts. They each have their defenses. Over the summer, or by the summer, one or more of my murder cases will get reached for trial. When I try that case, I can talk about it after.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a homicide or any other crime contact our criminal defense lawyers at TexasCriminalJustice.com