Murder Charges in Texas FAQ

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It doesn’t get any more serious than murder charges in Texas, and the fact that Texas is one of the few states that takes the death penalty very seriously makes the matter that much more profound. If you are facing a murder charge – at any level – you need the skilled legal counsel of an experienced Killeen murder defense attorney on your side from the outset.

What are the statistics for the death penalty in Texas?

Texas is unique when it comes to the death penalty. Consider the following information shared by the Death Penalty Information Center regarding the year 2023:

  • Texas was one of only five states to carry out an execution.

  • Texas alone was responsible for a full third of the 24 executions that year.

  • The population on death row in Texas is the third largest in the nation – with California and Florida in first and second place, respectively. Currently, however, there is a moratorium on executions in California (Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty).

The bottom line is that Texas has made – and continues to make – its mark in relation to the death penalty.

What are the murder charges in Texas?

There are four classes of murder – or homicide – charges in Texas.

Criminally Negligent Homicide

Criminally negligent homicide refers to killing someone in the course of a criminally negligent act, and a prime example is when a drunk driver kills someone else in the course of causing a traffic accident. The charge is a state jail felony, which carries a sentence of up to two years in jail and fines of up to $10,000.

Manslaughter

Manslaughter refers to recklessly causing another person’s death. In order to qualify as reckless, the accused must have shown a total disregard for the risk associated with their actions.

Often, the prosecution will seek a manslaughter charge for a seriously drunk driver who ends up killing someone else as a result of their impairment – rather than the charge of criminally negligent homicide, and the distinction is the difference between criminal negligence and recklessness.

Manslaughter is a second-degree felony that carries from 2 to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

Felony Murder

The charge of felony murder applies when the accused knowingly or intentionally caused the death of another, but the charge can become very complicated very quickly.

Texas has what is known as the felony murder rule, which means that – even if the murder itself was unintentional – the defendant can be charged with felony murder if another person was killed in the course of their inherently dangerous and illegal act, such as robbery, kidnapping, burglary, sexual assault, or felony DWI.

The theory behind this is that the precipitating crime demonstrates such disregard for human life that it transfers intent for any deaths that result to the defendant. The charge of felony murder is a first-degree felony that carries from 5 to 99 years in prison – or a life sentence – and fines of up to $10,000.

Capital Murder

Capital murder carries a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty. To qualify as a capital murder, a factor like one of the following must apply:

  • The victim was a police officer or firefighter who was in the course of official business.

  • The defendant intentionally murdered the victim in the course of committing a kidnapping, a burglary, an arson, an aggravated sexual assault, an obstruction or retaliation, or a terroristic threat.

  • The defendant committed the murder while escaping or attempting to escape from a penal institution.

  • The defendant committed or solicited a murder for hire.

  • The defendant committed the murder while they were imprisoned for murder.

  • The defendant murdered more than one victim.

  • The victim was 10 years old or younger.

  • The defendant murdered someone involved in the judiciary services.

What about self-defense?

Self-defense is what is known as an affirmative defense, which means that the defendant introduces credible evidence that disproves their criminal liability in the crime, which can include some murder cases in Texas.

Generally, the defendant has no burden of proof, but with an affirmative defense, their role is flipped, and they must demonstrate that they have no criminal liability.

There are a narrow range of occasions when a person has the right to use deadly force to defend themself, to defend another person, or even to defend their property. The castle doctrine in Texas says that you have no duty to retreat if you’re in your own home when someone else unlawfully forces their way in.

At this point, you can use whatever force is available to you in your efforts to defend yourself from attack. This includes deadly force, and it can be an effective affirmative defense in some murder cases. Some of the major points outlined by the castle doctrine include the following:

  • The defendant’s use of force is justifiable if they reasonably believe that it’s imminently necessary to protect themself or someone else from the threat of an intruder.

  • The defendant’s use of deadly force is justifiable if they reasonably believe it’s necessary to protect themself or someone else from imminent death or serious injury – or to prevent a violent crime from being committed.

  • As long as the individual isn’t engaged in a crime and has the legal right to be in the location they’re in at the time of the attack, they have no duty to retreat.

  • If the defendant was the instigator behind the attack – or if they provoked the attack – the castle doctrine doesn’t apply.

When it comes to the use of deadly force in the protection of your own property, it’s important to note that it’s only justified in those rare occasions when both the following apply:

  • It’s necessary to prevent a serious crime, such as burglary, arson, or robbery, from imminently happening.

  • There is no safer alternative, or any alternative would expose the person protecting themself to substantial risk of serious bodily injury.

When the event happens at night, the use of deadly force has fewer limitations and is justified as long as both the following apply:

  • The defendant reasonably believes it’s necessary to prevent a serious crime from imminently occurring.

  • The property in question can’t be adequately protected or recovered by any other means.

What is the difference between murder and capital murder?

The line that divides murder charges from capital murder charges is stark in the State of Texas because the difference in terms of punishment is a potential life sentence with the possibility of parole for a murder charge and a life sentence with no possibility of parole – or the death penalty – for a capital murder charge.

For the charge of murder to apply, the defendant must have intended to kill their victim or must have known that their actions were very likely to result in death. The act must have been motivated by a depraved intention, such as hatred, revenge, or some other form of evil.

However, if the murderous act was precipitated by a sudden passion that resulted from an adequate cause, the penalties faced can be reduced.

The charge of capital murder is reserved for those cases that are considered the most heinous, and they generally involve an aggravating factor, such as murdering a witness to another crime, torturing the murder victim, or posing a serious threat to the future safety of the public – in addition to those factors listed above under capital murder.

If the Charge of Capital Murder Applies, Does the Prosecutor Have to Use It?

Even if the prosecutor believes that the charge of capital murder applies to the case at hand, they generally won’t try a case for a charge they don’t think they can prove. When the prosecution doesn’t have a strong case or enough evidence to support a capital murder charge, they’re likely to go with the harshest charge they have the evidence to potentially prove.

What does premeditation and planning mean?

In order for the charge of felony murder to apply, which is a first-degree felony, the prosecution must prove premeditation and planning. Premeditation refers to having a deliberate intention to commit the crime in question before committing it.

When someone commits murder with premeditation, it means that they planned to kill the person ahead of time – rather than doing so in the heat of passion or in the immediate aftermath of adequate provocation.

Sometimes, a murder charge will be reduced to a second-degree felony – if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the intention of killing the person at the time they committed the crime and that they did so with malice. However, they lacked the necessary planning and premeditation that supports a first-degree felony murder charge.

What are the physical and mental elements of a murder charge in Texas?

In Texas murder cases, the physical and mental elements play a primary role in the nature of the charge and the level of responsibility that applies. When it comes to murder charges, the physical element is naturally the act of killing the other person, and how this act is carried out is determinative in terms of the charge that applies.

There is also, however, the mental element to consider, which refers to the defendant’s intent or knowledge. For the charge of murder to apply, the defendant must have intentionally caused the other person’s death or must have knowingly engaged in actions that were likely to cause their death.

What role does causation play in murder charges in Texas?

Causation refers to establishing a link between a defendant’s actions and the outcome of death in a Texas murder case. To prove murder, the prosecution is tasked with proving that the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the victim’s death – or that they significantly contributed to the victim’s death.

In the case of a murder charge, this requires proving that each of the following applies:

  • The defendant’s action was the direct cause of the victims’ death, such as if they intentionally shot their victim – in which case, causation is clear.

  • The harm the defendant caused must have been a foreseeable result of their actions, which means a reasonable person would have recognized that the action could lead to another person death or serious injury.

  • The chain of events from the defendant’s actions to the victim’s demise were uninterrupted.

What mitigating factors can affect the outcome of a murder case?

In Texas, there are certain factors that can lead to a murder charge being dropped completely or being reduced in terms of severity, including:

  • The defendant was acting in self-defense.

  • The defendant was acting in defense of another person.

  • The victim’s death was unintentional or happened as a result of an accident or mistake on the part of the defendant.

  • Due to severe mental illness or defect, the defendant was incapable of understanding the ramifications of their actions or of distinguishing right from wrong at the time the act was committed.

  • The defendant didn’t intend to harm the victim.

  • The defendant was a minor and, therefore, lacked the mental capacity to commit murder.

  • The defendant had no prior criminal history.

  • The defendant’s actions were provoked.

  • The defendant played a non-lethal role in the crime.

Make the Call to an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas, for decades – is an accomplished criminal defense attorney who will leave no stone unturned in his zealous defense of your rights and your case’s best possible resolution.

Our trusted legal team is on your side and here to help, so please don’t put off contacting or calling us at 254-781-4222 to schedule a free consultation and learn more about what we can do for you today.

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