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Murder vs. Manslaughter: How Are They Different?

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Many people ask, “How are murder and manslaughter different?” Both the crimes of murder and manslaughter involve a person’s death at the hands of another. The important difference between murder and manslaughter lies in the intent, or mens rea, of the offender:

  • The crime of murder is charged when an individual takes another person’s life with malicious intent.
  • The crime of manslaughter is charged when an individual kills another person without malice, or if a person is killed because of another person’s reckless actions.

If a deranged person takes years to plan a brutal homicide, this is murder. When an individual gets behind the wheel, talks on his or her cell phone, fails to stop at a stop sign, and runs over a pedestrian, this is manslaughter.

One of the above events is a heinous crime. The other is a horrific accident. In both cases, someone is dead as a result of a violent crime. The distinctions between manslaughter and murder are highly relevant to the defendant and the courts. The victim and his or her family must still deal with the significant loss of life of a loved one.

Definition of Murder and Manslaughter

Murder is defined by Texas law as a party’s use of violent means to deprive another person of his or her life with malicious intent.

Manslaughter is similarly defined in the United States. It involves one party’s taking another human being’s life without malice:

  • The mind of the killer and his or her intentions are the most important legal distinction between the crimes of murder and manslaughter.
  • Murder involves a “successful attempt” to kill another person.
  • Manslaughter occurs when an unintentional action of a person results in the horrible outcome of the death of another.

Have you been accused of murder or manslaughter?
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Degrees of Murder in Texas

The state of Texas doesn’t acknowledge first-degree murder, and that can be a bit confusing. First-degree murder is called capital murder in Texas:

  • Capital murder is a murder in which the offender receives the sentence of capital punishment, or death.
  • To convict the accused of capital murder, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that: 1) the accused “intentionally” and “knowingly” took another individual’s life, 2) the accused “intentionally” caused serious bodily injuries and committed act(s) that endangered human life, 3) the defendant’s actions caused the death of another human being, or 4) the defendant committed/attempted to commit a felony crime (other than the crime of manslaughter). In the performance of the felony, the defendant endangered human life and caused the death of another person.

Overview of Texas Capital Murder Laws

Texas Penal Code, Title 5 Chapter 19 describes Texas capital murder laws. To be charged with capital murder in Texas, one of the following conditions or circumstances must apply:

  1. The defendant killed a fireman or peace officer acting lawfully at the time of the crime.
  2. The defendant intended to commit murder in the commission of another crime, e.g. kidnapping, terrorist threat, burglary, retaliation, robbery, arson, or aggravated sexual assault.
  3. The defendant was paid to commit a murder or paid another party to commit a murder.
  4. The defendant committed the murder in the act of escaping from a Texas penal institution.
  5. The defendant killed another person while in jail or prison.
  6. The defendant murdered more than one individual.
  7. The defendant murdered a young child less than six years old.
  8. The defendant murdered someone to retaliate against or on account of the judiciary.

Possible defenses depend on the facts of the case. Available defenses may include 1) lack of intent, 2) self-defense, 3) lack of knowledge, 4) intoxication, or 5) insanity.

Penalties for capital murder in Texas

If convicted of capital murder, the offender may receive a death penalty sentence. The sentence for capital felony crimes in Texas is either life in prison (without the possibility of parole) or death. If a defendant is deemed incapacitated (i.e., he or she has a mental disability or is declared insane by psychiatric experts), he or she may be spared the death penalty.

Second-Degree Murder in Texas

Second-degree murder in Texas is called murder, a serious criminal offense with severe penalties. Second-degree murder involves the death of a person resulting from the defendant’s alleged wrongful actions. This includes death(s) that happen during the defendant’s commission of another crime or because of the defendant’s alleged recklessness.

Under the Texas Penal Code, Title 5 Chapter 19, the Texas Murder Statute, to convict the defendant of murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • The defendant “intentionally” and/or “knowingly” caused the death of another human being
  • The defendant intended to cause serious bodily injuries to another person and acted to endanger human life.
  • In the commission of another felony crime, other than the crime of manslaughter, the defendant’s actions endangered human life and caused the death of another person.

Common defenses for murder may include 1) the defendant’s lack of intent, 2) heat of passion defense, 3) intoxication, 4) lack of knowledge, 5) self-defense, or 6) insanity. If the prosecution fails to prove these criteria, the defendant may be convicted of a less serious homicide charge.

Penalties for murder in Texas

The offender faces a first-degree felony if convicted of murder in Texas. He or she faces a minimum of five years to a maximum 99 years in prison. If the offender’s criminal defense attorney successfully argues the defense of heat of passion, he or she faces a second-degree felony charge punishable by two – 20 years behind bars and/or a maximum $10,000 fine.

Texas Manslaughter Laws

The laws of Texas define manslaughter as the reckless cause of the death of a human being. When a prosecutor charges the defendant with manslaughter, he or she must have sufficient evidence to prove that the accused committed the crime of manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecutor doesn’t have to show that the defendant used premeditation before committing the crime. His or her single requirement is to prove that the accused’s actions were reckless or careless.

Types of manslaughter

Texas recognizes the following types of manslaughter:

  1. Vehicular manslaughter: this crime involves the offender’s killing of another person while he or she is operating a motor vehicle.
  2. Intoxication manslaughter: this crime involves the offender’s killing of another person while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  3. Criminally negligent homicide: this crime differs from vehicular manslaughter or intoxication manslaughter because the mens rea requires only criminal negligence, not recklessness.

Penalties for manslaughter in Texas

If convicted of manslaughter in Texas, the offender faces two – 20 years in prison and/or a maximum $10,000 fine.

Manslaughter defenses

A defendant charged with manslaughter may present an affirmative defense. In other words, the defendant admits to killing another person but has a legally acceptable reason, such as self-defense.

The criminal defense attorney may argue that the defendant was temporarily insane at the time the crime was committed. To successfully argue an insanity defense, the criminal defense attorney must show that the defendant couldn’t distinguish right and wrong at the time the crime was committed.

Murder and Manslaughter Examples

Facts of Case 1: James Boyle is walking on a congested street. John Smith bumps into James but doesn’t say “Sorry.” James becomes angry at the stranger’s rudeness. He pulls out a gun and shoots John. John Smith dies as a result of close-range gunshot wounds.

Assessment of Case 1: James could be convicted of murder in Texas because he intended to kill John. However, the jury or judge probably won’t determine that the murder was premeditated because James didn’t know John and didn’t make advance plans to kill him. In contrast, James probably wasn’t engaged in a heat of passion killing. While James may have been provoked in a minor way, the circumstances facing him were unlikely to cause a reasonable individual to lose control.

Facts of Case 2: Arnold and Irving are in a bookstore. They stand next to each other just a few feet away from a stair flight landing. They’re vigorously arguing over the esoteric meaning of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Both become animated. Arnold eventually points his finger at Irving. The action pushes Irving down the stairs. He dies from the sustained injuries.

Assessment of Case 2: Arnold would probably be found guilty of manslaughter. (Texas doesn’t distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.) He may be considered criminally negligent because he shoved Irving, standing near the flight of stairs. However, the circumstances of the case don’t appear to show that Arnold’s behavior was indifferent to human life (this would elevate the crime to murder).

Facts of Case 3: George arrives home to see that his wife, Jennifer, was sexually abused and beaten. He takes Jennifer to the hospital right away. In the car, Jennifer tells George that the attacker was Bradford, a local tavern owner that she and George sometimes frequent. After George brings Jennifer home from the hospital several hours later, he heads to a local gun shop and buys a shotgun. George then gets in the car, drives to Bradford’s tavern, and shoots Bradford. Bradford dies of the close-range gunshot wounds.

Assessment of Case 3: George could be convicted of murder in Texas. He reflected and planned (premeditated) to murder Bradford. He deliberated about how to murder Bradford. Voluntary manslaughter, a less likely alternative, might be argued. The jury or jury might believe that George’s heat of passion was cooled when he arrived at Bradford’s tavern. He was still angry when he shot Bradford.

Note that each of these defendants needs to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Murder and manslaughter are serious crimes in Texas. With aggressive criminal defense, it may be possible for the jury to find any of the defendants not guilty.

Summary of Murder vs. Manslaughter

The charge the defendant faces for a crime in which another person died depends on the unique case facts, including:

  • Intent. The major distinguishing factor between manslaughter and murder is the actor’s intent. In legal terms, the intent is called mens rea, which refers to the actor’s intention to commit an illegal and/or wrongful act, or his or her knowledge of committing an illegal and/or wrongful act in the circumstances of the killing.

Mens rea may apply to both murder and manslaughter, but there’s a distinct variation in the actor’s culpability based on his or her state of mind. When the defendant’s actions result in death, his or her state of mind is considered to determine potential criminal liability. That’s because a person who didn’t mean to kill another party shouldn’t be held similarly accountable to the person who plans and intends to kill someone else. This is the reason for the clear distinction between murder and manslaughter criminal laws in Texas.

  • Manslaughter. Manslaughter is differentiated from the crime of murder because of the actor’s lower levels of criminal intent and culpability. While other states in the U.S. distinguish involuntary and voluntary manslaughter, Texas statutes view manslaughter as a crime involving one person’s recklessness causing another person’s death.

Separate manslaughter charges exist, e.g. vehicular and intoxication manslaughter. These crimes are considered manslaughter because the drunk driver doesn’t knowingly or intentionally decide to kill another person when he or she causes a fatal accident. The law says that the driver should’ve realized that drunk driving may result in fatal consequences. Depending on the specific circumstances of the case, a manslaughter conviction in Texas can result in two – 20 years in prison and significant fines.

  • Murder. Unlike the crime of manslaughter, a murder occurs when the defendant knowingly and intentionally causes someone else’s death. If the defendant intended to kill, cause serious injuries or harm, or commits a felony crime that results in the death of another person, he or she may be charged with murder in Texas.

The laws of Texas distinguish capital murder from murder: 1) Capital murder usually involving killing a law enforcement officer, multiple persons, arranging or executing murder for hire, or other factors. If convicted of murder, the offender faces five to 99 years behind bars. Capital murder is punishable by life in prison without the opportunity of parole or death.

The difference between murder and manslaughter also involves the specific facts of the case as well as how the prosecutor constructs its narrative about the defendant’s intentions, premeditation, and so on.

A charge of murder or manslaughter is a complex, serious charge. An experienced criminal defense attorney can defend against the charge to mitigate penalties or prove innocence.

Contact a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist in Houston, TX

If you or someone you love has been charged with murder or manslaughter, you need to hire the most experienced criminal defense attorney available. Brett A. Podolsky is certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization as a Criminal Law specialist. A small number of criminal defense lawyers in Texas hold this distinction.

A defendant facing an allegation of murder or manslaughter needs a proven legal strategist in his or her corner when freedom and future are at stake. Contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky in Houston at 713-227-0087 now for an initial case evaluation.

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