What Are The Differences Between Murder, Homicide, and Manslaughter Charges In Texas?
The Texas Penal code defines “criminal homicide” as when someone “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.” There are four types of “criminal homicide” charges in Texas. From the most to least severe, they are: (1) capital murder, (2) murder, (3) manslaughter, and (4) criminally negligent homicide.
Unlike some states, Texas does not have “degrees” of murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. Instead, in Texas, the charge itself determines the punishment range, with the more serious charges carrying higher punishment ranges.
A person commits capital murder in the following nine circumstances:
- Murdering a police officer or fireman while they are doing the work of a police officer or fireman and the person knows they are a police officer or fireman
- Murdering someone in the course of or attempting to commit a kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or certain types of terroristic threat
- Murdering someone for payment or the promise of payment or hiring another person to commit a murder for payment
- Murdering someone while escaping or attempting to escape from prison
- Murdering someone employed by a prison while incarcerated in prison
- Murdering someone while incarcerated for murder or capital murder or while serving a life sentence for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated robbery
- Murdering more than one person during the same criminal episode
- Murdering someone under 10 years old; or
- Murdering someone because of their employment as a judge.
The punishment range for capital murder is either death by lethal injection or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, in the vast majority of capital murder cases, the state does not seek death, only life without parole.
A person commits murder if he or she:
- Intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; or
- Intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
- Commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.
The first subsection is what most of us think about when we talk about murder. Someone does something that kills another person. It could be shooting them, stabbing them, suffocating them, poisoning them, pushing them off a cliff—the means doesn’t matter. If you intentionally or knowingly do something that kills another person, then it’s murder.
There are, of course, some circumstances where murdering another person is justifiable, such as in self-defense, defense of a third person, or certain types of defense of property. But, unless a specific defense applies, any intentional killing of another person is murder.
The second subsection cover conduct in which a person may not have meant to kill another, but what the person did was so bad or dangerous that they can be charged with murder anyway.
For example, let’s say Joe hits Bob on the side of the head with a baseball bat because he got angry at him during an argument. Let’s say that Joe just wanted to hurt Bob really bad, not kill him, but the blow to the head fractures Bob’s skull and he dies. When Joe hit Bob in the head and fractured his skill, he caused “serious bodily injury.” Also, swinging a baseball bat at someone’s head is “an act clearly dangerous to human life.” Even though Joe didn’t intentionally kill Bob, he can be charged with murder because he intentionally did something that was so harmful or dangerous to Bob’s life that the law says it shouldn’t matter.
Another example would be if a person fires a gun into an abandoned building and kills a homeless person sleeping inside. That person can be charged with murder because firing a gun at a building is “an act clearly dangerous to human life.” Again, it doesn’t matter if the person intended to kill someone as long as they intended to do something dangerous to human life.
If you couldn’t charge someone with murder for intending to cause serious bodily injury or committing acts clearly dangerous to human life, then “I only meant to really hurt him” or “I didn’t know anyone was inside the building” would be defenses in these types of cases. Because we want to discourage serious assaults and dangerous behavior like shooting into buildings, the law allows people to be charged with murder in these types of cases even though they actually didn’t intend to kill anyone.
The third subsection covers what we lawyers call “felony murder.” This type of murder occurs when a person is committing, trying to commit, or escaping from the attempt or commission of a felony and does something clearly dangerous to human life that kills someone. For example, let’s say three people rob a bank and lead the police on a high-speed car chase. During the chase, the driver runs a red light and slams into another car, killing the innocent driver. All three people can be charged with murder for the death of the other driver because they were fleeing from a felony and did something clearly dangerous to human life (evading in a motor vehicle and running a red light while speeding) that caused another person to be killed. Even though none of the robbers may have wanted anyone to get hurt, they can still be charged with murder.
Murder is a first-degree felony punishable by between five years to life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. It is also a 3g offense, which means that a person convicted of murder must serve at least half their sentence or thirty years (whichever is less) before they are eligible for parole.
There is one, rare circumstance in which murder can be punished as a second-degree felony (i.e. two to twenty years in prison instead of five to life). If a person is convicted of murder but, during the punishment phase, the jury finds that the murder was committed “under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause,” then the punishment range is reduced to a second-degree. What Texas refers to as “sudden passion,” other states call “voluntary manslaughter.”
The classic example of “sudden passion” is someone murdering another person after finding them in bed with their spouse, though it’s rare for modern juries to find sudden passion in these circumstances anymore. As a practical matter, “sudden passion” really doesn’t matter that much. If a jury hates a murder defendant, they probably won’t find sudden passion and will sentence high. If a jury finds a defendant and the facts sympathetic, they’ll sentence at the lower end regardless of whether they find “sudden passion” or not.
A person commits manslaughter if he or she “recklessly causes the death of an individual.” A person acts “recklessly” when he or she “is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that their conduct will kill another person.
An example of manslaughter would be a person picking up a gun without checking to see if it was loaded, pointing it at a friend as a “joke,” and pulling the trigger. The most common type of manslaughter is “intoxication manslaughter,” which occurs when someone commits a DWI and kills someone while driving. Intoxication manslaughter is unfortunately so common that it has its own section in the Penal Code.
Manslaughter and intoxication manslaughter are second-degree felonies, punishable by between two to twenty years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Criminally Negligent Homicide
A person commits criminally negligent homicide if he or she “causes the death of another individual by criminal negligence.” A person acts with “criminal negligence” when he or she “ought to be aware of a substantial and justifiable risk” that their conduct will kill another person.
Of the four types of homicide, criminally negligent homicide is the least often charged. This is because the line between “ordinary negligence” and “criminal negligence” isn’t obvious. If a person runs an unobscured stop sign and accidentally kills someone, most people would say that’s negligent, but not criminally negligent. But what if the person was also speeding and texting at the same time? What if a trucker fails to secure a heavy load that spills onto the highway and kills someone? Is that negligence or criminal negligence? What if the trucker didn’t inspect his truck and hadn’t gotten enough sleep?
At some point, the law says that negligence becomes so bad that it can be charged as a crime if that negligence kills a person. Where that line is a judgment call for the prosecutor (in determining whether to file charges), the grand jury (in determining whether to indict), and the trial jury (in determining whether to convict).
Criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony, punishable by between 180 days and two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. If a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the criminal negligent homicide, it becomes a third-degree felony, punishable by between two and ten years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
For more information on Murder, Manslaughter, and Criminally Negligent Homicide Charges, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (713) 936-4521 today.
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