Murder and Manslaughter Charges
If you are being investigated or have been arrested for a case of homicide, whether it be manslaughter or murder, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is a must. Homicide, in simplest terms, is an act of killing a person. Not all homicides offenses are crimes, and it is possible for them to be considered justified or excused. Generally, a homicide can be deemed justified if it was committed in self-defense or defense of others and fatal force was deemed necessary, or if it was an action taken in the line of duty. For unjustified homicide, there are two ways North Carolina law categorizes them:
- Murder: Homicide committed with malicious intent. Malice is recognized in three possible ways:
- Manslaughter: Homicide not committed with malicious intent but is otherwise not justified or excusable.
These charges can carry the harshest penalties possible, with the possibility of lifetime imprisonment or even facing the death penalty for first-degree murder. Many people have fell victim to the justice system misidentifying them as the suspect in a murder case or disregarded an act of self-defense or accident as intent to kill.
With your life and freedom on the line, you must take murder or manslaughter charges with utmost seriousness. If you were named a suspect in a homicide case, you should acquire skilled legal representation immediately even if you are not facing formal charges yet. If you face charges, the defense strategy that your lawyer will use on your behalf will depend on the facts of your case. It may be that the victim’s death was the result of necessary self-defense, or that the defendant was not the perpetrator whatsoever. Whatever the defense approach may be, it must be solid and consistent.
Murder Charges in North Carolina
A conviction of murder requires proof of far more than a person’s death attributed to the actions of the defendant. Any charge of murder at least requires proof of malice. Malice often gets confused for premeditation, as it normally refers to intent or desire to do something evil or wrong, but in North Carolina is carries a slightly different meaning.
Homicide law in North Carolina recognizes three forms of malice:
- Expressing feelings of hatred, ill will and spite.
- Performing an inherently dangerous act in such a reckless manner that shows complete disregard for human life.
- A “condition of the mind” which prompts a person to kill another intentionally, or to intentionally inflict a serious injury upon another which later results in their death, without any cause, excuse, or justification.
The first element generally relies on witness testimony or material evidence like video or voice recordings of a defendant expressing hatred or ill will towards the victim. The second form of malice can be attributed to any act of extreme recklessness or disregard for life, such as racing through areas with pedestrian density or a school, or providing somebody with a drug or substance while knowing it had previously made them violently ill. The third form of malice is often confused with premeditated murder, but it involves intentionally killing or trying to injure somebody due to a more temporary state of mind rather than long-term planning. The use of a deadly weapon that results in death, or a non-deadly weapon used with excessive force against a helpless victim like a baby can imply this form of malice.
The law further classifies murder by degrees, where first-degree is the most serious crime and second-degree is relatively less serious, but still a high-level felony with lifelong consequences.
Murder in the first degree is the most serious crime you can commit, where a conviction is a class A felony punished by death or imprisonment for life without parole. In North Carolina, according to N.C.G.S § 14-17, a person is guilty of first-degree murder when they kill another living human being in a way that meets any of the following criteria:
- With malice and the specific intent to kill formed after premeditation and deliberation
- Poisoning, lying in wait, imprisonment, starvation, or torture.
- Committing or attempting arson, rape, a sex offense, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or any felony in which a deadly weapon is used
- By means of weapons of mass destruction.
Each of these elements involve many factors specific to the case and an in-depth understanding of how past cases have been dealt with, which will be discussed more further. Below are some details on the kinds of evidence that may be used or considered.
Element A - Premeditation and Deliberation
Premeditation refers to thinking about doing something beforehand for a length of time. Deliberation refers to intention to kill formed while the defendant was in a “cool state of blood”. This state does not mean an absence of emotions, but that the defendant’s emotions were not so strong to overcome reason, and they had a fixed objective to kill. Proving premeditation and deliberation does not necessarily require direct evidence, as some circumstantial evidence may be sufficient, such as:
- Committing the act unprovoked.
- Continuing to beat or attack the victim after they were helpless, or if they were always in a state of helplessness.
- Lack of remorse after killing.
- Previous acts of assault or threats against the victim.
- Statements of ill will towards the victim, or previous difficulties between the defendant and victim.
- The brutal nature of the killing (such as by strangulation), or nature and number of wounds on the victim.
Element B – Poison and Other Methods
If a person used poison, laid in wait, imprisoned, starved, or tortured a victim which led to their death, they will be guilty of first-degree murder. This crime does not require proof of malice or premeditation, as in a sense, it is implied through the actions themselves, as described below:
- Poisoning: A poison is any substance that can cause illness or death when absorbed or ingested. To be charged with murder for poisoning, the defendant must have given the poison to the other person, whether by force, deception or assisted suicide. This typically applies to substances that are universally poisonous, but knowingly and intentionally poisoning somebody with a substance to which they are deathly allergic can also constitute murder.
- Lying in Wait: Stationing oneself in an advance to stage an ambush attack on a victim that results in their killing. This does not necessarily require waiting at the site of the killing for an extended period. Simply waiting a moment before killing an unaware victim, providing no opportunity for self-defense, satisfies this definition.
- Starvation and Imprisonment: Imprisoning a person in a way that leads to their death can be considered first-degree murder, even if the defendant did not actively torture the victim. Imprisoning a victim and causing their death by starvation or dehydration by not providing them with food or water is also an act of first-degree murder.
- Torture: Any process of inflicting great, severe, or extreme pain, usually by more than a single act. This typically involves forcefully detaining or imprisoning another person.
Element C – Felony Murder
Felony murder is a type of first-degree murder that is committed in the attempt or act of a violent felony (arson, sex offenses, robbery, kidnapping, burglary, or felony use of a deadly weapon) in which the felony offense is what lead to the victim’s death. As with the previous form of murder, this does not require proof of premeditation, deliberation, or malice, as they are implied by the underlying offense.
A defendant can still be charged with felony murder if the killing itself was an accident, as the underlying felony offense implies harmful intention. Self-defense can be a valid defense only if it is an acceptable defense to the underlying felony, which is only the case in a few of the listed violent felonies.
Penalties for First-Degree Murder
A conviction of committing first-degree murder is a class A felony, while an attempted first-degree murder is a class B2 felony. A class B2 felony typically carries a very long sentence, if not a sentence for life. Class A felonies are the most serious crimes, carrying either an imprisonment for life without parole, or death sentence. The death penalty can only be imposed after strict review, and under the following conditions:
- The defendant is 18 years old or older.
- The defendant does not have any intellectual disabilities.
- There was one or more “aggravating circumstance” in the case, and aggravating circumstances outweigh “mitigating circumstances”.
Aggravating circumstances are conditions that make the act of murder more severe, including:
- The defendant was incarcerated when they committed the murder
- The defendant had a prior conviction of a felony involving threat of violence or violence.
- The murder was committed to hinder law enforcement, or against a law enforcement officer.
- The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person by means of a weapon or device.
- The murder was especially heinous or cruel.
Mitigating circumstances are conditions that make the act less severe, including:
- No significant criminal history
- The defendant was influenced by mental or emotional disturbance.
- The victim consented to the act or was a voluntary participant in the violent conduct that led to their death.
- The defendant was an accomplice to a murder committed by another person, but their participation was relatively minor.
- The defendant acted under duress.
Second Degree Murder
Second-degree murder is a relatively less serious form of murder compared to first-degree murder, but still an extremely serious crime. A person commits second degree murder when they kill another living human being with malice, but the case does not satisfy the additional criteria of first-degree murder. In essence, second-degree murder just requires proof of malice, which can rely on circumstantial evidence such as in the following cases:
- Extreme recklessness while driving leading to a killing, such as driving while impaired (DWI) with prior DWI convictions and doing reckless things like racing, driving on the wrong side of the road, or extreme speeding in a residential, hospital or school area.
- Extreme brutal child abuse without any intent to kill or use of deadly weapons or poisons.
- Causing another person’s death by distributing controlled substances.
A conviction of second-degree murder is punished as a class B2 felony, which carries a very long jail sentence. There is no such crime as attempted second-degree murder, as an attempt implies intention, which is not an element of this crime.
Manslaughter Charges in North Carolina
Manslaughter is an act of killing that is not committed with malice but is otherwise not justified or excusable by law. These charges are relatively less severe than murder but are still serious felonies that carry long-term imprisonment penalties, and the lifetime consequences of a felony conviction. Manslaughter can be classified as either voluntary or involuntary.
Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional unlawful killing of another living human being that does not involve malice. North Carolina law recognizes two recognized ways this could occur:
- A killing committed in the “sudden heat of passion” caused by adequate provocation that would arouse an ordinary person beyond their power of control.
- A killing committed in the exercise of an “imperfect” right of self-defense.
These circumstances do not justify the killing but imply that the act was not committed with malice, which brings the offense down from an act of murder to manslaughter.
For the first form of voluntary manslaughter, “sudden heat of passion” refers to emotions such as rage, anger, hatred, furious resentment, or terror that can make somebody incapable of cool reflection. examples where a defendant can claim sudden heat of passion include:
- When a person discovers their spouse in an act of adultery.
- A killing committed in anger during a mutual violent fight.
- An assault against the defendant or the defendant’s close relative or loved one.
Conversely, there are situations that would not be deemed a “sudden heat of passion” or that the provocation was not adequate to expect violent reaction, such as when:
- A person arms themselves in the expectation of an assault or violence and then kills during the assault.
- A person discovers that their spouse committed adultery by being informed about it and kills them, but not from catching them in the act itself.
- Mercy killing of an ill relative.
- The person experienced the “sudden heat of passion” but committed the act of killing after they had time to cool down.
- The provocation was only insulting words or gestures but not threats of violence.
For the second form of voluntary manslaughter, “imperfect” self-defense can mean two things:
- Self defense was necessary, but not in such excessive force that caused the other person’s death.
- The defendant was also an aggressor, but without murderous intent, in bringing on a fight or provocation.
A conviction of voluntary manslaughter is punished as a class D felony.
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person unintentionally causes the death of another living human being by either:
- An unlawful act that is not a felony and is not ordinarily dangerous to life
- By a culpably negligent act or omission, but not extreme negligence that shows disregard for human life such that it would be considered malice.
Essentially, this act occurs when a killing does not involve malice, premeditation, deliberation, or any intent to kill or inflict serious bodily injury. This means that only specific and often unexpected circumstances that lead to a person’s death may be considered involuntary manslaughter, such as:
- Committing a misdemeanor assault on somebody that would cause most people a minor injury but causes the victim’s death due to unexpected circumstances.
- Failing to uphold a legal duty to protect a victim that results in their death, such as a parent failing to feed their child or leaving them in a hot car for too long, leading to their death.
A conviction of involuntary manslaughter is punished as a class F felony.
Murder or Manslaughter of an Unborn Child
North Carolina has a section of criminal legislation under Article 6A, covering “unborn victims”. This section, in essence, covers unlawful murder, manslaughter or assaults on a human carried in the womb. At face value this may seem like a law criminalizing abortion, but it does offer abortion by a licensed medical practitioner as well as miscarriages or stillbirths as exceptions. The actual purpose of this law is to criminalize assaults on pregnant women that result in the death or injury of the unborn child they are carrying in their womb.
For acts that result in the death of the unborn child, there are three possible charges:
Murder of an Unborn Child
A person is guilty of this offense when they do any one of the following:
- Willfully and maliciously commit an act with the intent to cause the death of the unborn child
- Cause the death of the unborn child while committing an act or attempt of murder against the mother.
- Commit an act that causes the death of the unborn child that is inherently dangerous to human life and done so in a reckless manner showing disregard for human life.
If the defendant committed the acts that satisfy either (A) or (B) above, they will be guilty of a class A felony, which requires a lifetime imprisonment. If they were guilty of act (C), they will face a sentence on par with second degree murder, which is a class B2 felony.
Not knowing that the woman was pregnant is not a defense to charges for acts (B) or (C) above, as they do not require intent to harm the unborn child.
Voluntary Manslaughter of an Unborn Child
A person is guilty of this offense when they cause the death of an unborn child by an act that would be deemed voluntary manslaughter if it resulted in the mother’s death. This crime is punished as a class D felony.
Involuntary Manslaughter of an Unborn Child
A person is guilty of this offense when they cause the death of an unborn child by an act that would be deemed involuntary manslaughter if it resulted in the mother’s death. This crime is punished as a class F felony.
Can You Face Federal Charges for Murder?
Generally, murder crimes are handled in the state in which the offense took place. However, there are circumstances where the federal government prosecutes murder, including:
- The victim is a federal judge, elected or appointed federal official, or federal law enforcement official (e.g. a TSA or FBI agent), or a member of their immediate family.
- The killing is committed during a bank robbery.
- The killing takes place on federal property (e.g. national parks or a Native American reservation).
The crime can either be classified as first-degree or second-degree murder, following a similar definition as North Carolina, and carry similar penalties.
Defending Against Murder or Manslaughter Charges
Defending murder charges is very challenging and requires an exceptionally thorough review of all the facts of the case. Depending on the circumstances of the case and the degree of culpability the defendant had, the approach could either be to argue for complete innocence or in favor of being convicted of a less serious crime with lower penalties.
Defense of Self or Others
A defendant can challenge a murder charge by showing that they acted in self-defense or in the defense of others. This defense works if the accused shows that they:
- Believed that they were in “imminent danger”,
- Believed that the force was necessary to stop the danger, and
- Used an appropriate level of force in defense.
If all of the above factors are adequately met, this defense can either be used to completely justify the killing. If the third element is not met and the force used was deemed more than what was necessary, the act would be considered “imperfect” self-defense. This form of self-defense could result in a less severe conviction, dropping a murder charge down to a voluntary manslaughter charge.
The defense approach of claiming the killing was an accident is typically used to drop murder or voluntary manslaughter charges down to involuntary manslaughter. For the defense the work to completely excuse guilt, the accused must show that they:
- Had no criminal intent to do harm,
- Was engaged in otherwise lawful activity at the time of the killing, and
- Was not acting negligently.
There are very few circumstances where all the above can be argued favorable. One example is if a person kills an accidently innocent bystander while acting in self-defense. To prove this, the case would have to satisfy all the elements of self-defense listed previously, and additionally prove that the killing was not negligent. For example, if a person acted in necessary self-defense by firing a gun at a person assaulting them, but the bullet went through their body and killed an innocent person behind them, the killing may be deemed an accident.
This approach can also be used imperfectly to argue in favor of an involuntary manslaughter charge rather than murder or voluntary manslaughter.
The insanity defense is a well-known strategy for defending murder charges, where lawyers argue the defendant did not have the capacity to understand their actions were wrong by virtue or mental disability or illness. This defense should not be used haphazardly, as it requires an extensive understanding of how courts view mental impairment as it related to responsibility in crimes. While the defense has been popularized in the media, it rarely works in North Carolina and most other states, partially as a result of its success in the infamous success in the attempted assassination of former president Ronald Reagan.
One of the main reasons to use this defense very sparingly is that the state shifts the burden of proof from the prosecutor over to the defense, where the defense must argue clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was insane. This does not just mean proving medical insanity, such as showing a person’s diagnosed mental disability. Insanity in the eyes of the law requires more than a diagnosis for a mental illness, and most mental illnesses do not meet the criteria of legal insanity to begin with.
Furthermore, this defense does not completely mitigate punishment. While the defendant may be deemed not guilty and will not be incarcerated among convicted criminals, they will instead be involuntarily committed to a state mental health hospital. In some cases, the defendant could be committed to the mental hospital for a longer period than they would have served in jail if a different defense approach were taken.
Request a Consultation with Tarlton | Polk Defense Attorneys
Our lawyers have successfully represented clients in homicide cases, so they know how to carefully structure a defense based on the facts of the case. Most importantly, we are exceptionally skilled at taking these cases to trial, as we know the tactics used in violent crime prosecution that often push the defendant into a plea-bargaining position before a trial begins. If you would like to learn more about how we an help, or request a consultation with us, then leave us a message or call us today.