By: Mark Diaz
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What Is the Difference Between Homicide And Manslaughter?
Homicide vs. Manslaughter
When a person’s actions result in the death of another human being, prosecutors may charge that person with some type of homicide under the Texas Penal Code. The laws governing homicide in Texas are actually quite complex and subject to confusion. Indeed, many non-lawyers use terms like “homicide,” “murder,” and even “manslaughter” interchangeably without really understanding the difference.
So, here is a brief primer on what these terms really mean, and how each type of charge can affect a defendant in a particular case.
The first thing you need to know is that “homicide” is not actually a specific crime. Rather, it is a category of criminal offenses. In Texas, homicide includes four distinct crimes:
- Capital Murder
- Criminally Negligent Homicide
Let’s take each one of these in turn.
In its simplest form, a murder occurs when a person intentionally or knowingly kills another person. However, it can also occur when a person only intended to cause the victim “serious bodily injury” and as a result, causes another’s death. There is also what is known as “felony murder.” This refers to a situation where a person started out intending to commit some other felony and while committing or attempting to commit that felony, the person’s behavior was so dangerous as to cause the death of another.
Felony murder is thus an exception to the normal rule that murder required intent to harm or kill the victim. Here is a simple illustration of what we mean. Two men decide to rob a bank. They don’t actually want to hurt anybody, so they decide to use fake guns without any ammunition. They succeed in convincing the bank teller to give them money. While fleeing the scene, the robber driving the getaway car accidentally strikes and kills a pedestrian woman trying to cross the street.
Under these circumstances, prosecutors could charge both robbers with felony murder. No, the robbers never intended to kill anyone, especially a woman walking down the street. But that does not matter as far as the law is concerned. Felony murder can occur as a result of acts taken “in immediate flight” from the commission of the underlying felony, In this example, the robbery.
Regardless of whether we are talking about “classic” murder or felony murder, the Texas Penal Code treats the offense as a first-degree felony. This means that if convicted, a person faces a prison term of between 5 and 99 years and a fine not to exceed $10,000.
It is possible to reduce a murder charge to a second-degree felony during the punishment phase of the defendant’s trial. If the defendant can show they committed murder “under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause.” This effectively can reduce the penalty to that of a second-degree felony. The most commonly cited example of this type of “sudden passion” murder is a scenario where a person sees their spouse in bed with another and, acting out of rage, kills the lover.
Basically, the actor must show they acted out of a sudden and uncontrollable rage and did not act with premeditation in killing the other. To alter the above example slightly, if the defendant responded to their spouse’s affair by stalking the lover for several days and then killing them, that would not be considered an act of passion, and instead would be a premeditated crime.
Also note, a second-degree felony charge is not a “get out of jail free” defense. On the contrary, a second-degree felony carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail. Of course, it is still better than a life sentence for a first-degree felony conviction.
Texas is well known as a death penalty state. But it is important to understand that not every murder carries a potential death sentence. Texas law makes a clear distinction between murder and capital murder.
Capital murder is basically murder that involves one or more special circumstances. These circumstances include but are not necessarily limited to:
- The victim was a police officer or fireman who was performing their duties and was known to the defendant as a police officer or fireman at the time of the murder.
- The defendant committed the murder in the course of committing–or attempting to commit–certain other felonies, such as burglary or rape.
- The defendant committed a murder-for-hire.
- The defendant committed the murder while trying to escape from prison.
- The defendant is currently in prison and murdered a prison employee.
- The defendant murdered multiple persons as part of the same “criminal transaction” or as part of the “same scheme or course of conduct.”
- The defendant’s victim was under the age of 15.
- The defendant committed murder in retaliation against a judge.
A capital murder conviction does not always mean the death penalty. For example, if a person was under the age of 18 when they committed the capital murder, the mandatory penalty is life. And for adults over 18 years old, a jury can elect to sentence the defendant to either death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in cases where the State sought the death penalty.
Manslaughter is when someone “recklessly” causes the death of another person. This is the key distinction between murder and manslaughter. Murder requires proof of intent to kill. But with manslaughter, the intent is irrelevant. What matters is that the defendant’s actions were so reckless that they led to the death of another.
Some states make a further distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” manslaughter. In this context, voluntary manslaughter is similar to the “crime of passion” murder described above. The Texas Penal Code, however, does not formally define separate crimes of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
There are, however, certain special cases of manslaughter. One of the most common is intoxication manslaughter. This occurs when a defendant is intoxicated and, by reason of that intoxication, causes the death of another person “by accident or mistake.” In other words, if a person gets behind the wheel while intoxicated and causes a fatal accident as a result of his or her intoxication, that person will likely be charged with intoxication manslaughter.
Even in non-DWI cases, recklessly driving your vehicle can lead to manslaughter charges. A driver who is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or who has simply disregarding basic traffic laws–e.g., speeding or running a red light–can face possible manslaughter charges if their actions lead to someone else’s death.
And while manslaughter may not seem as severe a crime as murder or capital murder, it is still classified as a second-degree felony in Texas. So, if convicted, a person can still be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Criminally Negligent Homicide
One step below manslaughter is the charge of criminally negligent homicide. As the phrase suggests, this applies to situations where the defendant caused the death of another person due to criminal negligence. But what exactly is “criminal negligence”?
The easiest way to explain it is that criminal negligence refers to conduct that a person should know would create a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” to human life. It is more than ordinary negligence in that it requires some degree of gross deviation from the normal standards of what is considered civilized conduct.
One example of criminal negligence is hazing. For instance, say a college fraternity decides to initiate new members or pledges by forcing them to drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. As a result, a pledge dies of alcohol poisoning. Prosecutors could charge the fraternity leaders who orchestrating and supervised the event and hazing with criminally negligent homicide.
While still a serious offense, criminally negligent homicide is the lowest degree of homicide in Texas. It is a state jail felony. This carries a jail term between 180 days and 2 years, and a fine of no more than $10,000. Keep in mind, however, that the line separating criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter can be tricky, and aggressive prosecutors may try and pursue the second-degree felony manslaughter charge when plausible.
Defending Yourself Against a Homicide Charge
If you are facing any of the homicide charges described above, you need to call an experienced Galveston criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A murder or manslaughter charge will not simply disappear just because you tell the police you are innocent. You need a lawyer who will aggressively represent your interests in court and defend you to the best of their ability.
Even if you were involved in a person’s death, a defense lawyer can help protect and defend you in court. For example, in many homicide cases, the evidence only supports a manslaughter charge at best, yet the district attorney insists on prosecuting the case as a murder. But if the prosecution cannot prove you acted with premeditation, then a jury must acquit you of murder. Similarly, a prosecutor may pursue a case of criminally negligent homicide as manslaughter. Having a qualified defense lawyer at your side can help you negotiate a plea agreement to a more appropriate–and less severe–charge in some cases.
If you need legal representation or advice, contact Mark Diaz, criminal defense attorney, today at (409) 515-6170 to schedule a free consultation.