What is negligent homicide?
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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Negligent homicide is a subset of most state homicide statutes and is usually the lowest category for an offense that results in the death of another person. An individual charged with negligent homicide should understand how a negligent homicide is charged, the range of potential punishments, and the possible defenses.
Homicide is a general category of charges for situations where one person causes the death of another person. Intent controls how a homicide is charged. If a person wanted another person dead, and plotted and eventually caused the death of that individual, that person could be charged with murder, one of the highest degrees of homicide.
Negligent homicide is a much lower intent crime and is used as a charge when one person causes the death of another through criminal negligence. The charge does not involve premeditation, but focuses on what the defendant should have known and the risks associated with what he did know.
Negligent Homicide Elements
The first element that a state must prove in a negligent homicide case is that the defendant was aware of an unjustifiable risk associated with the events that led to the death of another person. For example, if the victim and the defendant were playing with a gun, and the victim was shot but the defendant refused to call for medical help, the defendant could be charged with negligent homicide because most people know the risks associated with a gunshot wound. When the defendant refused to seek medical attention, he disregarded an unjustifiable risk, which was the possible death of his friend.
The second element that the state must prove is an act or omission. Many states require an affirmative act to demonstrate causation. For example, if a defendant drives 50 miles per hour in a school zone as children are being released from school, and then hits and kills a child who is crossing the street, there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the defendant's actions and the death of the child. Some states do not require an overt act, merely an omission. Using the gun example, if the victim accidentally shot himself, the state would have to show that the victim would have lived but for the defendant’s negligence in not seeking medical treatment.
The final main element is to show causation. This is a direct link between the negligent action and death of an individual. For example, using the gunshot case, the state must show that if the defendant had not refused to obtain medical treatment, the victim would have survived.
Punishment for a Negligent Homicide Conviction
Even though it is the lowest category of homicide offenses, negligent homicide is still a serious offense. Punishment can range from probation to time in a penitentiary. In Alaska, the maximum penitentiary time is 10 years. In Texas, the punishment for negligent homicide ranges from 180 days up to 2 years in prison, with no possibility of parole. Overall, punishment in most states ranges from six months to 10 years for a negligent homicide conviction. Because criminal negligence is similar to general negligence, a defendant could also face an independent civil lawsuit for causing the death of another person.
A defendant charged with any degree of homicide should understand the nature and punishment range for negligent homicide because that knowledge could help develop the defensive strategy.
A defendant charged with a higher degree of homicide, like murder or manslaughter, may want to seek a lesser-included charge of negligent homicide, which carries a lower range of punishment. For example, if the state alleges that a person intentionally ran over another person, a defendant may be able to produce enough evidence to show negligence, rather than intention, in causing the victim’s death. This defense tactic is used to make it appear that a defendant is accepting responsibility for the death, a move that can gain credibility with a jury, with the additional advantage of a much lower punishment range.
If a defendant were charged with negligent homicide, the best defense strategies would be to attack either causation or awareness of an unjustifiable risk. When attacking causation, a defendant is not denying that a person died, but is challenging why and how the victim died. For example, if the victim and defendant were playing with a gun when the victim was shot, and the victim received such serious injuries that calling for emergency medical care would not have made a difference, the defendant might be able to successfully challenge the cause of the victim’s death. A similar approach can be used for the risk element. If a defendant can show what others have done in similar situations, the defendant may be able to demonstrate that actions or omissions did not constitute an unreasonable risk.
Regardless of which strategy is used, any defendant charged with negligent homicide needs to understand that evidence must be preserved. For instance, since many companies or agencies only keep video footage for 30 days, a defendant who knows such videotapes exist should take steps to ensure that any evidence or other information that could help with the defense is property preserved.
Getting Legal Help
Negligent homicide charges are different from other homicide charges because they are used in such a wide variety of situations where one person causes the death of another. Negligent homicide charges also are used to prosecute companies that are aware of an unjustifiable risk, which caused the death of one or more people. Any corporation or individual charged with criminally negligent homicide should contact a defense attorney as soon as possible to develop effective strategies and ensure a viable defense.