Defenses to a Homicide Charge

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What Is the Legal Definition of Homicide?

Homicide is defined as the unlawful killing of another human being. The legal definition of homicide includes several types of acts including intentional crimes like murder and involuntary acts like involuntary manslaughter. Each classification of homicide crimes carries with it different legal consequences. Also, the types of defenses available for each homicide crime may vary depending on the nature of the crime.

How Do Homicide Defenses Work?

In a homicide charge, the purpose of a defense may not always be to completely remove the charges. Instead, it is common for the defense to serve the purpose of reducing a more serious type of homicide to a less serious charge. An example of this is when the defense is used to reduce the defendant’s charges from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

In order to be found guilty of homicide, the prosecution must prove that the defendant acted with the required mental state. For example, in first degree murder, criminal defense lawyer must prove that the defendant acted intentionally and premeditated the act. Many defenses to homicide are based on a lack of the required mental state.

What Are the Different Types of Homicide Defenses?

Some of the common defenses available for defendants charged with homicide include:

Justifiable Homicide: Homicides which are excused by the law. Justifiable homicide defenses are typically complete defenses, meaning that the defense, if proven, would allow the defendant to get off with no punishment or sentencing given.

  • Perfect Self-Defense: It is a defense to homicide if the defendant acted out of the honest and reasonable belief that the homicide was necessary for self-defense. The defendant will usually be required to prove that they did not initiate the violence, and that they used an equal amount of force in responding to the aggressor. It is also a perfect self-defense if the defendant was assisting in a suicide and abiding by death with dignity law in that state.
  • Imperfect Self-Defense: If the defendant honestly believed that self-defense was necessary, but a reasonable person would believe otherwise, then the defendant might still get off on imperfect self-defense. The main difference between perfect and imperfect self-defense is that imperfect self-defense does not have a reasonable belief requirement.
  • Defense of Property: It usually must be proven that the intruder or trespasser had threatened the life of the property owner.
  • Duress/Necessity: If the defendant was forced to commit the killing, it may be a possible defense. For example, if they were held at gunpoint and forced to kill another person, it may relieve them of the charges. Not available for murder charges.
  • Crime Prevention: If the defendant committed a killing in the course of preventing a crime, it can be a defense if it is proven that they were reasonable in their intervention.

Inability to Intentionally Kill: The defendant is unable to understand that they have a duty not to take a life and/or the defendant is unable to act on that duty. These defenses will not excuse the homicide, but a successful defense will reduce the homicide charge, most likely to a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charge. As such, prison time will still be given, but it will be lessened based upon the circumstances. If the defendant is proven insane, the defendant will be sent to a mental institution instead.

  • Insanity: Criminal laws outline various defenses under the category of insanity. It usually must be proven that the defendant was not mentally sound at the time of the act, and that they lacked the required mental state for homicide. Records will indicate that the defendant claimed an insanity defense, which may have consequences in other areas of the defendant’s life.
  • Intoxication: This type of defense is usually used to reduce murder charge to less serious charges. Intoxication sometimes has the effect of rendering a person unable to form the required mental state for homicide. However, a voluntary intoxication has much less persuasion in court as it is assumed the defendant should know when to stop when the intoxication begins to become excessive.
  • Diminished Capacity: Diminished capacity, also known as provocation, is best described as a “temporary insanity” when the defendant is in an extremely stressful situation. The state of stress must not be voluntary and a reasonable person must also be shocked by the circumstances the defendant is in. For example, the defendant leaves her home country to live with a spouse only to discover that her spouse is cheating on her a few days after she arrives.
  • Unconsciousness: A defendant who is unconsciousness when the crime is performed is unable to do the act, thereby negating the homicide charge.

Reasonable Mistake: In order to have the mental state to kill, the defendant must have the knowledge that the killing was illegal and unjustified. A reasonable mistake means that the defendant lacks that knowledge, and as a result, also lacks that mental state.

  • Mistakes of fact: The mistake of fact must serve to negate the required mental state for the homicide charges. Also, the conduct must have been lawful if the mistaken facts were true. The mistake of fact in homicide is that the defendant mistakenly believed that the defendant’s life was at stake, which furthers a defense of imperfect self-defense. A mistake regarding the law is typically not a defense.
  • Entrapment: A defense exists when a law enforcement agent or officer encourages, induces, or solicits a person to commit a homicide which they would not otherwise have committed. Entrapment is the only exception to the rule that a mistake of law is not a defense to a criminal charge.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Homicide Charges?

If you are faced with homicide charges, you should consult with an attorney immediately to see if any are defenses are available. As you can see, homicide charges do not necessarily result in a guilty sentence. An experienced criminal defense lawyer may be able to help you get the charges removed or reduced to a lesser crime. 

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Last Modified: 10-06-2016 01:29 PM PDT

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