If you have been charged with criminal homicide in Texas, you are facing perhaps the worst circumstances of your life. But don’t lose hope. The experienced Austin homicide attorneys at Cofer & Connelly, PLLC are in your corner. We will clarify your rights and possible defenses.
Homicide in Texas
In Texas, the law specifies four types of criminal homicide that range in severity from a first-degree felony to a state jail felony, depending on the facts of the case and how the death happened. The most severe type of homicide is called capital murder, meaning that the accused may potentially face the death penalty or a life sentence in prison if convicted as charged. Other murders can be charged as a felony of the first or second degree with the potential for two to 99 years in prison upon conviction.
These are the four categories of criminal homicide under Texas law:
- Capital Murder
- Criminally Negligent Homicide
Two lesser homicide charges, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, are also available to prosecutors in cases with no intent to cause death or serious injury. The difference between them centers on whether the accused was reckless or merely extremely negligent in causing the death.
No matter the type of criminal homicide case, the charges are serious and call for the best possible defense. Anyone charged under Texas criminal homicide laws needs a skilled and experienced Austin, Texas, criminal defense attorney on their side. While the law entitles every felony defendant to an appointed public defender, the truth is that the public defender is unlikely to care about your case and meet the charges with an independent investigation and vigorous defense like a skilled criminal defense lawyer will.
Murder Under Texas Law
Three definitions cover the crime of murder in Texas. The prosecutor will bring criminal charges of murder in a case where someone either:
- Intends to kill a person and does so.
- Intends to cause serious bodily injury and death results.
- Takes action that is clearly dangerous to people while committing a felony crime, and death results.
In the first two cases, the prosecutor must show facts that indicate intent to harm, either to kill or cause serious bodily injury.
Definition of Terms in a Murder Charge
Some key terms in the murder statute describe facts the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt for a murder conviction. The words are specifically defined with a unique meaning in Texas law, so it is evident what legal standard the prosecutor must meet to convict someone of murder.
Knowingly or Intentionally
An act done knowingly or intentionally has the element of the defendant's state of mind as a central aspect of the charge. The accused must have intended that death or serious bodily injury would result from the action to support a conviction of murder. Knowingly means that the person knew and understood the risk of death that could result from that particular action, such as driving a car at someone. Intentionally means that the accused intended the specific result of death and that it did happen as planned.
Serious Bodily Injury
Under the second part of the murder statute, a prosecutor can seek a murder conviction to prove that the accused intended to cause serious bodily injury, even if the person didn’t specifically intend to kill the other person. Serious bodily injury is defined in the law as an injury that causes a real risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or ongoing loss or impairment of functioning to any body part or organ. If the accused meant to cause serious bodily injury, and death resulted, the charge will be first-degree murder.
What are the Penalties for Murder in Texas?
Murder is charged as a first-degree felony. The penalty is five to 99 years (a life sentence) in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. However, a prison term and monetary fines are not the only consequences of a felony conviction. Felons forfeit the right to vote and own guns or ammunition. With the stigma of a felony conviction on their record, convicted felons generally face many challenges following the prison term in finding a suitable career and good housing. Everything from banking to getting credit to developing social relationships will be much more difficult or impossible with a felony conviction.
Murders of Sudden Passion
The Texas law of murder explains that following a murder conviction, the defendant can then raise the justification of having committed the murder "under sudden passion with adequate cause." This argument comes in the punishment phase of the trial when the judge or jury decides on the crime's consequences.
In a case of “sudden passion,” the defendant explains to the judge or jury deciding the consequences of the case that the victim who was killed, or someone acting together with the victim, provoked the murder. This argument requires a showing of “adequate cause.” This is defined as an action that would cause an intense “degree of anger, rage, resentment, or terror” in the ordinary person.
If the defendant proves during the punishment phase of the trial that they were provoked to kill because their judgment was overpowered by the “sudden passion” of the provocation, the charge will be reduced to a second-degree felony.
Capital Murder – Death Penalty Cases
The crime of murder is raised to a capital offense that can result in the death penalty for the accused when the circumstances of the crime involved:
- Killing of a peace officer or firefighter who is performing their job
- Killing that is intentionally done during the course of
- Aggravated sexual assault
- Obstruction of the investigation of another crime
- Making a terroristic threat
- Killing for hire, including both the murderer and the person who hired them to commit the murder
- Deaths caused while escaping jail
- Deaths of prison employees caused by prisoners trying to gain an advantage from the death
- Deaths of prisoners by inmates who are in for murder, capital murder, or a life sentence
- Serial killers, whether multiple deaths happened in one crime or multiple related crimes
- Killing of children under 10
- Killing of judges in retaliation for a ruling or in the course of a case
The law says that a prosecutor who cannot prove the facts of capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt can still get a conviction of simple murder or a lesser offense despite not getting the capital conviction.
Someone who acts recklessly and causes death can be charged with manslaughter. Recklessness is defined as being aware of the substantial risk of harm involved in an action yet disregarding that risk.
A manslaughter charge does not require that the defendant intended to kill or cause harm. The defendant in such a case did not plan or anticipate causing death or even an injury. The requirement of reckless action just means that the person ignored the substantial risks of injury or death involved in the activity.
Texas law has no specific crime called vehicular manslaughter, as many other states do. However, prosecutors could charge the crime as manslaughter if the defendant operated a vehicle recklessly, such as knowingly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, if the facts of the case support the charges.
Further, drivers who participate in a speed contest, street race, or another type of reckless behavior in operating a motor vehicle and the activity leads to death can be charged with manslaughter under the Texas Transportation Code.
What are the Penalties for Manslaughter under Texas Law?
Manslaughter is charged as a second-degree felony. Punishment can be two to twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine. As with other felony convictions, the potential consequences of a felony conviction go far beyond just the prison sentence and financial penalties. Nearly every area of a person's life will be impacted by a felony on their record.
Criminally Negligent Homicide
Criminal negligence is a dangerous disregard for the risks of harm in some action. The negligence could be in firing a gun casually and dangerously in a way that causes death, driving in a hazardous manner due to road rage or some other reason, or any of a number of other dangerous activities that could lead to someone's death.
There is no need to have an intent to cause death or injury for a charge of criminally negligent homicide. The prosecutor only needs to show that the accused acted in an extremely negligent and dangerous way with no regard for the potential consequences of the act and caused death as a result.
The Texas Penal Code defines criminal negligence as "…an unjustifiable risk of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes … a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances ..."
In a criminally negligent homicide case, the prosecutor focuses on the defendant’s awareness of the risks involved in their actions. The arguments and evidence in the case will center on what the accused knew or should have known about the risks they were taking with the action.
A capable defense attorney will help the defendant to demonstrate that the risk of death was not obvious to the defendant. If successful in showing a defense of this type, the prosecutor might get a conviction on lesser charges or a decreased punishment with a conviction.
What are the Penalties for Criminally Negligent Homicide?
Charged as a state jail felony, a conviction of criminally negligent homicide can lead to a sentence of 180 days to two years in state jail. If the defense can prove a lack of real awareness of the risk of death involved in the action, it is possible to reduce the charge, leading to lower penalties for a lesser charge.
Providing a Strong Defense To Murder Charges in Texas
Any type of criminal homicide charge is a severe accusation. The consequences of a guilty plea or a conviction as charged will follow the defendant for life. It makes no sense to try to represent oneself or to resort to an unproven attorney to defend against such serious allegations. A skilled and experienced violent crime attorney will turn over every stone in investigating the facts and picking apart the prosecutor’s allegations.
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