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Murder Laws in Texas: Types, Degrees, and Punishments

There are few criminal offenses as serious as those concerning the loss of life. In Texas, the criminal justice system prosecutes laws pertaining to cases in which one person is responsible for another person’s death. There are distinctions between these offenses made regarding the defendant’s actions and his or her frame of mind when the act occurred. Regardless of the exact charge, an offense that involves the loss of life may result in negatively life-altering penalties and consequences.

Are you facing murder charges in the state of Texas? Contact attorney Matthew Sharp today for the aggressive criminal defense you need. Your life and freedom is on the line; contact the law firm you can trust — The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp.

Murder is addressed under the legal umbrella of criminal homicide in Texas. Acts of criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter are included. Under Texas law, if a person “knowingly,” “recklessly,” or with “criminal negligence” causes another individual to lose his or her life, the defendant commits a form of criminal homicide. If you or someone you love is charged with any form of criminal homicide in Houston or throughout Texas, the stakes are high. You need a criminal defense attorney right away. Retaining an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible protects your legal rights.

In this post, we discuss the differences between criminal homicide offenses, laws, differences between offenses, examples of homicide offenses, factors that elevate a homicide offense, and punishments for each degree.

Homicide Laws in Texas

Texas Penal Code § 19.02 defines murder crimes. An individual who commits murder: 1) causes death to another person, or 2) intentionally seeks to cause serious bodily injury to another individual, or 3) commits a dangerous act that results in death to another person, or 4) commits/attempts to commit another type of felony (other than manslaughter) and 5)in the course of or in furtherance of committing or attempting the offense or 6) in fleeing from the attempt or committing of the offense—he or she commits/attempts to commit a dangerous act that ultimately causes death to another person.

Section 19.03 of the Texas Penal Code defines capital murder crimes. Under Texas law, a capital murder offense includes the commission of at least one offense as defined in the murder statute:

  1. The actor murders a fireman or peace officer who’s acting in his or her official duty.
  2. The actor “intentionally” commits murder while in the course of attempting to commit/committing a kidnapping, arson, terrorist threat, burglary, obstruction or retaliation, robbery, or aggravated sexual assault.
  3. The actor solicits/commits murder for hire.
  4. The actor attempts/commits murder while escaping (attempting) escape from a jail, prison, or other penal institution.
  5. The actor murders another individual while in jail or prison.
  6. The actor murders another individual less than or equal to 10 years old.
  7. The actor murders another individual acting in service of the judiciary.

If you have been charged with a serious crime like homicide, know that a knowledgeable defense attorney can make a difference in the outcome of your case.

Various Degrees of Murder

Some forms of homicide aren’t always crimes. When a person acts in self-defense or the state carries out a sanctioned death sentence of a specific convict, these aren’t criminal actions.

Criminal homicide involves negligence, willful intent, and ranges from involuntary manslaughter, such as accidentally causing the death of another driver in a drunk driving collision, to first-degree murder, such as stalking and then killing a rival gang member.

First-degree murder involves the actor’s deliberate and premeditated decision to kill another person. For instance, if Jill plans to kill Jack by poisoning his food, she may be charged with first-degree murder.

Capital murder and a first-degree murder offense are similar. The difference is based on specific circumstances the sentence the court delivers to the murder. The prosecution must prove that the accused committed the act of murder, that is was intentionally performed and premeditation, or that it was carried out with total reckless disregard and abandonment for another human life. Whether the convict is sentenced to the death penalty (capital punishment) depends on specific circumstances.

In the well-known murder trial of O.J. Simpson, Los Angeles prosecutors charged the defendant with two first-degree murder counts (the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman). First-degree murder charges were brought based on evidence at the crime scene. Witnesses said that Simpson allegedly monitored his wife’s comings and goings—he spied on her before the killings. The evidence might have demonstrated that O.J. Simpson premeditated the murder(s) prior to the acts of murder. As we know, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the charges brought against him.

It’s tricky for the average citizen to discern the degrees of murder. In real life, there’s frequently an incredibly thin line between a first or second-degree murder. First-degree murder involves intention and/or felony murder. In second-degree murder, the actor murders in an unplanned way but, nevertheless, does so without regard for another person’s life. The murder just happens. That’s why the law considers taking the time and effort to plot another person’s death is more serious.

Second-degree murder involves an impulsive action that results in death to another person. It’s not a premeditated act.

In the often-discussed death of Trayvon Martin, prosecutors in Florida charged George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, with second-degree murder. Zimmerman was charged with a second-degree offense because prosecutors found no evidence that Martin’s murder was premeditated. To win the trial against Zimmerman, the prosecutor would’ve been required to show that Zimmerman intentionally plotted to inflict bodily harm to Martin. The jury voted against the theory of Zimmerman’s intentions to harm Trayvon Martin.

Felony murder involves committing the death of another person while the actor or actors are committing a serious felony, such as armed robbery. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow provide a famous example of felony murder. Clyde is in the act of committing a bank robbery when one of the bank guards tries to stop him. Clyde shoots the guard and kills him. Clyde is later charged with first-degree murder. Because Bonnie participated in the bank robbery but didn’t pull the trigger, she was charged with felony murder.

The bank guard died at the time Bonnie acted as an accomplice in the armed robbery. If Bonnie was waiting in a getaway car when Clyde robbed the bank and accidentally hit and killed an innocent pedestrian, both robbers would face felony murder charges—another person was killed without either individual’s intention while both acted to commit a serious felony offense.

Aggravating circumstances are frequently considered in a murder trial. When a murder is committed when the actor hides or lays in wait, or the actor(s) target an individual holding a certain position, such as a firefighter, police officer, or judge, the actors may then face enhanced charges and a more serious punishment, such as the death penalty.

Adequate justification, on the other hand, can involve a downgrade of a charge of murder to a lower level. For instance, mistaken identity, justified homicide (such as when the actor kills another person in defense of others), or self-defense may provide adequate justification.

Punishments for Murder in Texas

Chapter 12 of the Texas Penal Code [Section 12.32] describes the penalties for felony murder in the first degree. If convicted, the convict faces punishment of a maximum fine of $10,000, a prison sentence of five to 99 years.

Section 12.31 says that capital murder is a capital felony offense. If found guilty of a capital felony offense, the convict faces either the death penalty or life in prison. The convict must be at least 17 years old. If the state doesn’t pursue the death penalty for a capital felony offense, the convict faces mandatory life in prison (if the crime was committed when the actor was less than 18 years old) or life in prison without parole if the convict was 18 years old or older.

To discuss a murder charge or a lesser charge of manslaughter that you or someone you love is facing anywhere in Texas, contact Attorney Matthew D. Sharp in Houston at +1-713-868-6100. Mr. Sharp’s insight and experience in criminal law can benefit your future.

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