Being charged with any crime is a stressful and upsetting experience, especially when the allegations involve homicide. While all homicide charges are extremely serious and demand immediate attention from a highly experienced criminal defense attorney, it’s also important to distinguish between the three different types of criminal homicide which are established by New Jersey law: murder, manslaughter, and death by auto. Each of these crimes has a different legal definition, and will result in different penalties if the defendant is convicted. In some instances, it is possible to have murder charges reduced to manslaughter.
When is Homicide Charged as Murder?
It’s a common misconception that murder and homicide are synonymous. Homicide may involve murder, but it can also be categorized as manslaughter or death by auto, commonly referred to as vehicular homicide. All of these offenses involve the death of another human being, but what sets them apart is the defendant’s intent and the circumstances of the crime.
Needless to say, death by auto is charged only in instances involving vehicles. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is more complex.
Murder is charged when the defendant allegedly acted “purposely” or “knowingly,” meaning the murder was deliberate and intentional. Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-3, the criminal statute which sets forth New Jersey’s definitions and penalties for murder, murder can be charged in three scenarios:
- “The actor [defendant] purposely causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death.”
- “The actor knowingly causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death.”
- The term “serious bodily injury” has its own legal definition under N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-1: any injury that either “creates a substantial risk of death,” results in “serious, permanent disfigurement,” or causes the long-term “loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member [limb] or organ.”
- The third scenario is the most complex. Homicide can also be charged as murder if the defendant causes death while committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing from the scene of any of the following crimes:
- Sexual Assault
- Criminal Escape
This applies whether the defendant acted alone or with other people. If you or a loved one have been charged with murder, it is imperative to contact an experienced New Jersey murder defense attorney immediately.
Increased Criminal Penalties for a Murder Conviction
New Jersey calls misdemeanors “disorderly persons offenses” (also known as DP offenses) and felonies “indictable crimes” (or simply crimes). Murder is graded as a crime of the first degree, or first degree felony. Normally, New Jersey limits prison sentences for first degree crimes to 10 to 20 years. However, because murder is such a serious offense, sentencing is increased as follows:
- 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole (early release).
- A term ranging from 30 years to life in prison, in which case parole does not become a possibility until the offender has served at least 30 years of the sentence.
There are also some specific circumstances where the penalties increase even further, becoming elevated to life without the possibility of parole. These circumstances include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The victim was a police officer.
- The victim was younger than 14 and was a victim of sexual assault or other sex crimes.
- The murder was committed for financial gain.
How New Jersey’s Laws Define Manslaughter
Manslaughter is defined by N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-4. There are two scenarios where homicide will be charged as manslaughter instead of murder:
- The defendant commits a homicide recklessly.
- The key difference here is acting “recklessly” as opposed to “purposely” or “knowingly.” If a defendant was being reckless, it means he or she placed other people’s safety in danger by engaging in risky behavior without any reasonable or justifiable cause. Acting recklessly is not the same as acting intentionally.
- The defendant commits a crime that would normally be described as murder, except that the offense was “committed in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation.” There is no simple, clear-cut definition of what constitutes a “reasonable provocation” or a “heat of passion,” which only emphasizes how important it is to be represented by a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.
Aggravated manslaughter is more serious because of the factors it involves, described below:
- The defendant “recklessly causes death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.”
- The defendant “causes the death of another person while fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.”
Manslaughter is a second degree crime, subject to five to 10 years in prison. Aggravated manslaughter is a first degree crime, but carries different penalties than murder or the standard prison sentence: 10 to 30 years of incarceration (as opposed to 10 to 20).
If you’ve been charged with murder, manslaughter, or death by auto in New Jersey, you face spending years, decades, or even the rest of your life in prison. When the stakes are this high, you simply cannot afford to go against the prosecution on your own. You need an aggressive murder defense attorney on your side in the courtroom.
To start talking about how our legal team may be able to help you in a free and completely private legal consultation, call the Law Offices of John J. Zarych right away at (609) 616-4956. We represent clients throughout Atlantic County, Camden County, Cape May County, Burlington County, and Ocean County. Se habla español.