Murder and manslaughter are not the same thing. Murder refers to the intentional killing of another person. Manslaughter, in contrast, means “recklessly” causing a person’s death. Intoxication manslaughter, for example, occurs when a drunk driver accidentally kills someone as a consequence of their inebriated state.
When Is a Murder Defendant Allowed to Argue It Was Manslaughter?
The difference between murder and manslaughter is not trivial. Non-capital murder–i.e., cases where there are not special circumstances justifying the death penalty–is a first-degree felony in Texas, punishable by up to 99 years in prison. Manslaughter is a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Given the wide sentencing disparity, it is common for defendants in Texas murder cases to seek a “lesser-included” offense of manslaughter as part of the judge’s instructions to the jury. In other words, the defendant wants the jury to have the option of convicting on manslaughter rather than murder. Naturally, prosecutors tend to oppose such instructions.
But Texas courts have long held a defendant is entitled to a lesser-offense instruction when there is “some admitted evidence” that would support a manslaughter conviction.
Here is a recent example. In February 2014, a man was driving his car when he crashed into another vehicle, killing its driver. Prosecutors charged the man with murder. At trial, the defendant’s girlfriend, who was with him in the car at the time, said he “snapped” and started driving erratically. The girlfriend testified the defendant said, “I’m going to kill both of us,” at which point he suddenly accelerated, causing his vehicle to fly through the air and crash into the victim’s car.
The defendant offered a somewhat different account. He testified that he never threatened his girlfriend and he simply “blacked out while driving and had no memory of the crash.” After the crash, the defendant tested positive for marijuana and PCP.
The jury convicted the defendant of murder based on the prosecution’s theory that even though he did not intend to kill the victim, he did intend to kill his girlfriend (and himself). The judge rejected the defendant’s request for a lesser-offense instruction on manslaughter.
A Texas appeals court said the judge was wrong to do so. The appeals judges said that the defendant presented “affirmative evidence that he recklessly caused” the victim’s death through his “conscious disregard” of the risks of driving while under the influence of drugs. Had the jury been permitted to, it could have found that he never intended to kill his girlfriend, which means there was no intent to commit murder.
Are You Facing a Murder or Manslaughter Charge?
Obviously, the lesson here is not that you should drive drunk. But if the state charges you with murder, it must prove your actions were intended to kill. Reckless behavior, no matter how egregious, is insufficient. And while a manslaughter conviction is no small matter, 20 years in jail is far preferable to 99 years.
If you have been charged with murder, manslaughter, or any other serious felony, you need to work with an experienced Galveston criminal defense lawyer who will zealously represent your interests. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates to speak with an attorney today.