Murder is the most serious and heinous offense one can commit against another person, so it’s not surprising that it carries grievous penalties in our state. Although Minnesota does not practice the death penalty, offenders can still face many decades – or even life – in prison.
If you have been accused of killing someone, it is important to know what charges you may face and be aware of possible defenses. We recommend involving a criminal defense attorney as early in the process as possible. Much of the evidence will be gathered during questioning, and an experienced attorney can make sure that your rights are protected during this process, when unrepresented defendants are often coerced by investigators into incriminating themselves.
Charges for homicide
In Minnesota there are three degrees of murder and two degrees of manslaughter, in addition to criminal vehicular homicide. The level of offense you are charged with will depend upon your alleged intent and the nature of the killing.
First-degree murder. The most common distinction between first-degree murder and lesser charges is the defendant’s intent to kill. Most first-degree murders are premeditated, and are based upon the identity of the victim, such as killing a spouse or domestic partner after continued domestic violence.
First-degree murder can also be charged based upon the conduct of the defendant, for example if the murder occurs during sexual assault, kidnapping, arson, aggravated robbery, burglary, or an act of terrorism.
Minnesota does not practice the death penalty, so the most severe penalty for first-degree murder is life in prison.
Second-degree murder. In second-degree murder, the killing of the victim is generally intentional, but is not a premeditated act.
Killing someone during commission of a crime other than sexual assault, or killing someone unintentionally while intending to inflict serious physical harm can also be charged as second-degree murder. In Minnesota, second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison.
Third-degree murder. Third-degree murder is not based upon the intent to kill, but rather occurs when the defendant acts with indifference to the sanctity of human life.
For example, if the defendant fires a gun into a crowd without intending to kill anyone, or sells adulterated drugs, the resultant homicide could be charged as third-degree murder. In Minnesota, the maximum penalty for third-degree murder is 25 years in prison and up to $40,000 in fines if the crime involved the sale of a Schedule I or II substance.
Voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter charges may be pressed rather than murder charges when the defendant carries out the killing due to an intense emotional response, or a so-called “crime of passion.” Voluntary manslaughter charges may also be brought if the death arises from sale of a Schedule II, IV or V controlled substance. Voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and fines up to $30,000.
Involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing that occurs based on negligence, for example if the defendant fails to disarm a gun prior to cleaning it and an accidental discharge results in the death of a bystander. Involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and fines of up to $30,000.
Criminal vehicular homicide. Criminal vehicular homicide occurs when the grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle or negligent operation under the influence of drugs or alcohol results in the death of another. The maximum penalty for criminal vehicular homicide is 10 years imprisonment and/or fines up to $20,000.
Defense strategies for homicide
Defense strategies for homicide include making a case that the defendant did not commit the killing, and admission that the defendant did commit the killing, but that it was either justified, or that the defendant did not have the elements of intent required for murder charges.
Mistaken identity or actual innocence. Mistaken identity or actual innocence is the claim that the defendant did not actually commit the homicide, and that the prosecution has charged the wrong person. An alibi proving that the defendant was not at the crime scene at the time of the homicide is often used in these defenses. The defense may also bring the validity of forensic evidence or witness statements into question.
Justified homicide. In some cases a homicide may not be a crime, but may be legally justified. The most common justifications for homicide are self-defense and defense of others. In these cases, the defense must argue successfully that the defendant reacted with reasonable use of force to a reasonable threat of death or bodily harm to the defendant or another bystander.
Accident or misfortune. If the killing occurred by accident during the commission of lawful activities, it is not considered murder. The accident or misfortune defense is often used to reduce murder charges to manslaughter charges.
Insanity. If mental illness made the defendant cognitively unable to appreciate the consequences of his or her actions, an insanity defense may be used. Insanity defenses are only used in about 1% of all homicide cases, as they are relatively difficult to make, and the defendant is usually confined to a mental institution.
Which strategy is best in your case? Only a knowledgeable and experienced Minnesota criminal lawyer will be able to tell you for sure. Reach out today for your best chance at a positive outcome.
About the Author:
Christopher Keyser is a Minneapolis-based criminal and DWI defense attorney known for fighting aggressively for his clients and utilizing innovative tactics to get the most positive results. He has been featured in numerous media outlets due to the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and recognized as a Minnesota Super Lawyers Rising Star (2014–2015), a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013–2015), and a Top 40 Under 40 Attorney (2013–2015).