Under Arizona law homicide is defined as the taking of another person’s life. For obvious reasons, it’s one of the most serious criminal charges you or a loved one can face. In Arizona, a homicide conviction carries significant penalties and the state regularly seeks the death penalty for many first degree murder charges. Educating yourself about Arizona homicide laws and utilizing the skills of an experienced homicide attorney will maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Types of Homicide in Arizona
The law recognizes that there are many different circumstances under which one can cause the death of another person. Accordingly, the law establishes different classifications of homicide with corresponding degrees of punishment. In Arizona, there are four different types and degrees of Homicide:
What is commonly called Involuntary Manslaughter is known as Negligent Homicide in Arizona. It is the unintentional killing of another person. This is the least serious type of felony homicide charge you can face in the state. Negligent Homicide is a Class 4 Felony. Depending on how it is charged and whether you used a weapon or dangerous instrument, there are different types of punishment you could receive. You could be placed on probation with 0 days to 12 months in jail. You could also face a prison sentence from 1 to 3.75 years, or 4 to 8 years. Read more
The crime of Manslaughter in Arizona is what was called Voluntary Manslaughter in the past. It is a Class 3 Felony. Your punishment depends on how it is charged and whether you used a weapon or dangerous instrument. You could receive probation with 0 days to 12 months in jail. You could also be sentenced to prison for 3 to 12.5 years, or 7 to 21 years. Read more
When a person commits Second Degree Murder, the killing is done intentionally, but without premeditation. It can also be committed when a person’s reckless behavior shows extreme indifference to human life. This is why it is a more serious crime than Manslaughter. Second Degree Murder is a Class 1 Felony and is punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison. Read more
The most serious homicide charge you can face in Arizona is First Degree Murder. It is a Class 1 Felony that is punishable by death or life imprisonment. First Degree Murder can be committed by intentionally killing someone, with premeditation. It can also be committed when a you or someone else cause the death of another person while you are committing another felony offense (or while fleeing from this other felony). Read more
Homicide is generally charged as a Dangerous Offense. Under Arizona law dangerous offenses under A.R.S. § 13-105, means either that:
- The offense involved the use of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument; or
- The offense involved the intentional or knowing infliction of serious physical injury.
Deadly Weapon Defined:
- means anything designed for lethal use, such as a gun.
Dangerous Instrument Defined:
- means anything that that is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury under the circumstances in which it is used.
- For example, a car may be considered a dangerous instrument when a person drives under the influence of alcohol and causes an accident that kills another person.
- Also, a baseball bat or a pen can be considered dangerous instruments depending on how they are used.
If you are convicted of either Negligent Homicide or Manslaughter and the prosecution proves that it is a Dangerous Offense, then you must be sentenced to prison. This means that even if you have no prior criminal record, you will not be eligible for probation and must go to prison.
Defenses to Homicide
Every person’s case is different. Determining what defenses to homicide may be present in a case must be based on the specific charges and facts of each case. Due to the serious nature of murder cases, prosecutors don’t just drop charges when they have a weak case. Utilizing a customized defense strategy developed by an experienced homicide attorney is your best chance of getting your case dismissed or reduced. Generally speaking, however, defenses to homicide include the following:
Insufficiency of the Evidence
This is a general defense where you attack the quality and the reliability of the evidence used against you. You argue that the prosecution is unable to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the charged crime.
- For example, if the police’s investigation was of poor quality, then you want to attack the evidence as the unreliable byproduct of a shoddy police investigation. Also, the investigation may not have been complete. The police may have failed to look into other evidence or suspects. Maybe the police failed to have certain important pieces of evidence tested.
- Additionally, when there is scientific forensic evidence regarding such things as DNA, firearms, fingerprints, or crime scene reconstruction, you may want to hire an independent expert. This independent expert can review the evidence and give their own opinions to argue against the prosecution’s expert opinions.
Lost, Destroyed, or Unpreserved Evidence
If the police or prosecution lost, destroyed, or failed to preserve evidence that are important to the issues in a case, then a defendant can ask the court to give a jury instruction to help the defense. This is called a Willits The instruction allows the jury to consider the fact that important evidence was lost, destroyed, or not preserved as possible reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.
Lack of Motive
Motive is not an element of the crime of murder. But when a person is being prosecuted for murder, if the person did not have a motive to kill, then the jury can take that into consideration to find you not guilty.
- If you were wrongly identified by an eyewitness, then you will want to attack the prosecution’s evidence of identification. Research has shown that eyewitness testimony is one of the most unreliable kinds of evidence.
This type of defense is usually argued when the prosecutor tries to argue that you are guilty of a crime because you were an accomplice to another person who committed the crime. But if you are merely present at a crime scene, or knew that that a crime was being committed, that does not in and of itself make you guilty of the crime charged. Someone who is merely present is a passive observer. This means that the person did not have criminal intent and did not participate in the crime.
- If you have evidence or a witness who can testify that you were somewhere else at the time the crime was committed, then you should raise an alibi defense. An alibi defense shows that you were not present at the time and place the crime was committed. Therefore, you could not have been the person to have committed the crime.
Third Party Culpability
A third-party culpability defense is like an alibi defense because, for both defenses, you are arguing that you specifically did not commit the crime. But for a third-party culpability defense, you are arguing that there is evidence to connect someone else (a third party) to the crime.
For an alibi defense, a jury must find you not guilty if there is reasonable doubt that you were present at the time and place the crime was committed. For a third-party culpability defense, a jury must find you not guilty if there is reasonable doubt that you committed the crime because the crime may have been committed by a third party.
SIDE NOTE: Depending on the evidence, you could argue both alibi and third-party culpability defenses.
When your defense is one of causation this means that you are arguing that your actions were not the cause of death of the other person. For example, a fight breaks out at a party and two people fire their guns. A bullet from each person’s gun hits another person and kills that person. But one bullet hit the person in a location that was not fatal, and the other bullet hit the person in a location that was fatal. Only the person whose bullet caused the death should be charged with murder.
Self-Defense, Defense of Another Person, Crime Prevention
These types of defenses are called “justification” defenses. You should argue a justification defense when you did cause the death of another person, but you were justified in doing so. The most common types of justification defenses are self-defense, defense of a third person, or crime prevention (for only specific crime listed in A.R.S. § 13-411(A)). If you argue that you were justified, then the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not act with justification.
SIDE NOTE: Self-defense cases tend to be some of the most defensible murder cases.
Insanity (Guilty Except Insane)
A person is guilty except insane if, at the time of the crime, a person suffered from a mental disorder that caused the person to not know the criminal act was wrong. It does not include disorders that result from voluntary intoxication or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, character defects, psychosexual disorders, or impulse control disorders.
SIDE NOTE: This type of defense tends to be more difficult to prove because many people suffer from a mental health disorder or substance abuse issue, but they still know right from wrong.
Affirmative Defenses in Arizona
Guilty except insane is an example of an “affirmative defense” under Arizona law. This means that the defendant has the burden to prove that the defendant is guilty except insane. For example, in other types of case, the prosecution has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act with justification or that the crime was not committed by someone else. But with the affirmative defense of insanity, the prosecutor does not have to prove that the defendant was not insane.
Furthermore, most affirmative defenses only require that the defendant prove the affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence. An insanity defense, however, must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard of proof than preponderance of the evidence (but lower than proof beyond a reasonable doubt).
Proof by a preponderance of the evidence means that a fact is more probably true than not true. Clear and convincing evidence means that a fact is highly probable.
Phoenix Homicide Attorney
The stakes are big when you are charged with homicide, regardless of the classification. You need to be sure that your attorney has the experience, skills and knowledge about the law to provide you with the best possible defense.
Arizona law gives each type of homicide classification its own definition and elements. But how the facts fit the law can be very particular. That is why it is important to have an experienced homicide attorney to ensure that the prosecution is not abusing its power in bringing a specific homicide charge against you.
At Feldman & Royle, we have represented clients charged with various homicide offenses throughout Arizona. We have obtained acquittals and not guilty verdicts based on various types of strategies and defenses. Our experience in defending homicide cases is substantial and our track record is well-known in the legal community. If you or a loved-one are facing a homicide charge, contact us to learn how our firm can help you. The initial consultation is free and confidential.