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Understanding Murder in Houston, Texas

Murder is a criminal homicide offense in Houston that occurs when a person intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another. The offense also includes other situations where a person engages in dangerous acts intended to cause serious injury to the victim but instead causes death, as well as killing a person while committing a felony offense. Although the acts constituting a murder charge must be intentional, this intent does not need to be directed at a specific person. As such, a person can still be convicted for murder even if the person planned to kill a person but accidentally kills someone else. 

Like other homicide offenses in Houston, murder is one of the most serious offenses in the city. A conviction for the offense can attract severe penalties, including long prison terms and hefty fines. This is in addition to several other long-lasting consequences like a permanent criminal record and disqualification from voting and possession of firearms. Besides murder, other criminal homicide offenses in Houston are capital murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. These offenses involve causing death to a person in several circumstances and are criminalized under Chapter 19 of the Texas Penal Code.

What is First-Degree Murder in Houston?

Murder under Texas laws is generally classified as a first-degree felony punishable with imprisonment from 5 to 99 years plus a fine of up to $10,000. As such, there is no separate charge of first-degree murder in Houston. However, in states and cities that have this classification, it usually refers to the most severe homicide charges in the jurisdiction. The most serious homicide charge in Houston is capital murder. Acts that constitute capital murder include:  

  • Murder committed against a peace officer or fireman on duty
  • Murder committed while committing or attempting to commit kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat
  • Committing or soliciting murder for hire
  • Murder committed while escaping or attempting to escape from legal detention.
  • Murder committed during imprisonment.
  • Murder of more than one person in a single incident 
  • Murder of a child that is ten years old or younger
  • Murder of a person in retaliation for service with the judiciary.

Capital murder in Houston is a capital felony offense punishable by death or life imprisonment without the opportunity of parole. Note that in Texas, only persons above the age of 17 can be sentenced to death. 

What is Second-Degree Murder in Houston?

Texas does not officially use the term second-degree murder. However, although murder is typically a first-degree felony offense in the state, it can be diminished to a second-degree felony if the defendant’s actions were provoked by the victim or a person acting with the victim. Such a charge is referred to as a crime of passion, meaning that the crime was not premeditated, but occurred due to spur or heat of the moment. A second-degree felony in Texas is punishable with imprisonment between 2 to 20 years, which may also include payment of a fine not exceeding $10,000. 

What is Third-Degree Murder in Houston?

Third-degree murder is not legally recognized as a charge in Houston. However, in certain states, the charge refers to unintentionally causing a person’s death while carrying out a dangerous act, similar to the offense of criminally negligent homicide in Houston. Non-premeditated acts such as accidental shootings and failing to call for help in time after causing an accident can amount to criminal negligence homicide in Houston.

Though also similar to manslaughter, the offenses can be distinguished based on the mental element required for their respective charges. Accordingly, to be liable for manslaughter, the defendants must have acted recklessly. Meaning that they were aware their conduct could lead to a particular result, but they proceeded with it regardless of the significant and unjustifiable risks involved. Meanwhile, the requisite mental element for criminally negligent homicide is negligence. Someone is considered criminally negligent if the person ought to be aware that their actions could have put another person’s life at serious and unjustifiable risk. In Houston, criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony punishable by 180 days to two years in state prison. The sentence may also include a fine, not more than $10,000. This is the least severe homicide offense in Houston. 

What is Manslaughter in Houston?

A person commits manslaughter in Houston by recklessly causing the death of another person. As opposed to murder, the actions constituting a manslaughter charge do not need to be intentional. Instead, all that is required is that the defendants were aware of the risk surrounding their conduct or the results that could occur but consciously disregarded such risks. Manslaughter in Houston is classified as a second-degree felony. Punishments for this offense include imprisonment ranging from two to 20 years, including a fine of up to $10,000.

What is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Vehicular manslaughter in Houston refers to the act of causing the death of another by recklessly operating a vehicle, including a car or boat. Per Section 545.401 of the Texas Transportation Code, this offense also includes killing another person while participating in a race, vehicle speed competition or contest, drag race, or other types of acceleration contest. Vehicular manslaughter in Houston is typically charged as a second-degree felony punishable with two to 20 years in jail and a fine not exceeding $10,000. The court can also suspend the offender’s driver’s license. 

What is Voluntary Manslaughter?

Unlike other states, Texas law does not differentiate between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. However, in states that have this distinction, voluntary manslaughter refers to the killing of another person committed without a prior intention, during a spur of emotion provoked by the victim or someone acting with the victim. The killing is said to have been done in the heat of passion. This is also an offense in Houston, though it is classified as a lesser murder charge, not manslaughter. Murder committed in the heat of passion is a second-degree felony in Houston that can attract 2 to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 upon conviction.

What is Involuntary Manslaughter?

Involuntary manslaughter typically refers to situations where the defendant did not intend to cause death to the victim but nonetheless does so accidentally or inadvertently or as a result of negligent, careless, or dangerous behavior. This is, however, not a legal classification of manslaughter in Houston. Nonetheless, besides the manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter charges, Texas law also provides for intoxication manslaughter. This refers to the offense of killing a person while operating a motor vehicle, boat, or aircraft under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Under Texas law, intoxication means having an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. This offense is a second-degree felony that can result in a fine of up to $10,000 and two to 20 years in state prison. Offenders may also face a suspension of their driver’s license ranging from 180 days to years.

What Type of Lawyer do I Need for a Murder Charge in Houston?

A criminal defense lawyer is the most crucial individual between the accused person and the court’s decision. The outcome of any murder charge in Houston depends on several factors, including the evidence tendered by the parties, witnesses, and jury trials. A qualified defense attorney is trained to present arguments on behalf of the accused and try to get the best possible outcome, either dismissing or diminishing the charge. To do this, the attorney would usually examine the facts and deploy applicable defenses, including:  

  • Defense of alibi:  the defendant’s counsel can deploy this defense by providing supporting evidence to show that the accused was never at the crime scenes and could therefore not have committed the offense. If argued successfully, this could result in the dismissal of a murder charge in Houston. 
  • Lack of intent: under Texas law, acts constituting a murder charge must be done intentionally. Therefore, where there is evidence of certain situations like involuntary intoxication, mistake of fact, or mental illness leading up to the murder, or if the death was caused by accident or misfortune, the court may diminish or dismiss a murder charge. 
  • Exercise of lawful duty: killings by law enforcement and public officials may not be considered murder in certain situations, especially if they occurred in the course of their duties and were committed without criminal intent, recklessness, or negligence.
  • Justifiable homicide: the law provides for several instances where fault for the death of a victim in a murder case would not be attributed to the accused. This includes situations where the victim dies after attacking or threatening the accused, and the latter used reasonable force to repel such attack. This defense is also applicable where the victim’s death is caused by reasonable force used by the accused persons to protect other persons from unlawful attack or their property from unlawful interference. In every case, the force used must be proportional to the force of the attack.
  • Motion to suppress evidence: residents of Houston have the right not to respond to interrogation by the police under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The police are mandatorily required to inform a suspect of this right before questioning a suspect. Failure to do so can render such evidence derivable from the statement inadmissible. In the same vein, the court may not also admit evidence obtained during an unlawful search or arrest, as such actions violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S Constitution.
  • The heat of passion: by proving that the accused actions were provoked by the victim and would cause emotional distress to a reasonable person, the defense can diminish a murder charge to a lesser offense. For this defense to apply, the defendant's actions must have been done in the heat or spur of the moment, not after some other time or period after the provocation occurred.