Why are there so many different types of Murder in Missouri?
In Missouri, there are five different ways to charge someone whose actions have resulted in the death of another. Among the five different Missouri homicide statutes, important distinctions will affect the freedom of the accused and what defenses can be raised at trial.
First Degree Murder
Murder in the first degree is the most serious crime that can be charged in a homicide case. It requires the State to prove an individual knowingly caused the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter. Here the difference centers around the mental state of the defendant. Premeditation, or the intent, at the time of the murder was to willfully take the life of a human being. The prosecutor must put on evidence that shows that the defendant had decided in their mind to kill the person. The State must prove there was some period of time between the formation of the intent to kill and the actual killing. The State can present various types of evidence to attempt to prove premeditation. They commonly use prior statements of the defendant, prior conduct of the defendant, details of the actual killing, or even conduct of the defendant after the crime occurred.
The punishment upon conviction for first-degree murder is either death by execution, or life imprisonment. If seeking death, the charge is often referred to as “capital murder.” When the State seeks the death penalty, they must present aggravating factors. There is a long list of aggravating factors that includes the defendant’s criminal history, how the crime was carried out, what steps were taken after the murder, and whether the murder was committed as part of a larger scheme of crime, or as a murder-for-hire plot.
The defense also will present mitigating factors to establish why the death penalty is not the appropriate punishment. These include the defendant’s age, criminal history, mental capacity, emotional disturbance, duress, consent of the victim, and whether the individual charged was the primary actor, or merely an accomplice to the crime.
Second Degree Murder
A person commits second degree murder if they knowingly cause the death of another person, or if they intend to cause serious physical injury to another, but the person instead dies of that injury. There is no requirement of premeditation or a period of deliberation. The State simply must either prove that the killing was committed knowingly or that a serious injury was committed knowingly, and that injury instead resulted in the victim’s death.
Second Degree “Felony Murder”
Missouri also classifies felony murder as murder in the second degree. Felony murder may be charged when an individual commits or attempts to commit any felony, and, while committing or attempting commit that felony, or while trying to flee from the scene of that felony offense, another person is killed as a result. Felony murder has been used excessively in Missouri to punish individuals for crimes that they did not intend or commit. For example, if one person shoots another during a drug deal, any other person involved in the commission of that drug deal, can be charged for felony murder. Missouri also often uses felony murder to charge individuals if a fatal accident occurs during any sort of police chase. Resisting arrest is never a good idea, but it’s an especially bad idea when it could result in murder charges.
The punishment for both types of second-degree murder is ten to thirty years, or life imprisonment. If convicted, the individual must serve at least 85% of what ever sentence is imposed.
Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional homicide arising from the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause. This is an intentional killing but is mitigated by sudden provocation and without premeditation. There must be a causal connection between the provocation, the passion, and the fatal act committed. The government has the burden to oppose heat of passion argument and to establish premeditation, so an attorney will have a strategy of highlighting how it was a killing of passion.
The criminal justice system views provocation as a heat of passion that destroys free will. The provocation must be adequate provocation that would provoke a reasonable person. In other words, a minor insult or contact is typically not a reasonable excuse to kill. Courts typically take the approach that mere words do not constitute adequate provocation. The provocation must be sudden in relation to the timing of the offense. If there was a reasonable opportunity to cool down and calm him or herself, the sudden passion defense will not stand.
First-Degree Involuntary Manslaughter
A person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the first degree if he or she recklessly causes the death of another person. Recklessness occurs when an individual “consciously disregards” a substantial risk and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist of that a result will follow and that disregard was a gross deviation from the standard of care. In plain English, a reckless homicide requires proof that a person is aware of a great risk, but completely ignores that risk without justification.
Second-Degree Involuntary Manslaughter
A person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the second degree if he or she acts with criminal negligence to cause the death of any person. The key distinction between first degree and second-degree involuntary manslaughter is the level of intent. Second degree only requires criminal negligence. Criminal negligence is defined as “failing to be aware” of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. Again, in plain English, the person was not aware of the great risk, but they should have known, and should have exercised greater care to avoid loss of life.
The Missouri homicide statutes contain many small details that greatly affect the options a person has when charged with the death of another. If you or someone you know may be charged with any kind of homicide offense, it is critical to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible.