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Killings in Dallas: Felony Charges When Someone Kills in Texas

Killing Someone Isn’t Always Capital Murder in Texas

Four people were killed in the eastern part of Dallas on Monday. In one day, four killings happened in a pretty small part of town considering the size of the Dallas metroplex. Add to that several other killings that were reported over the past week, and there have been quite a bit of deaths here, tragedies where people have died at the hands of another.

The Four Dallas Killings on Monday, October 14, 2015

Two days ago, four deaths were reported here in Dallas, all on the east side of town.  They all died at the hands of another:

1. The body of Dallas teenager Zoe Hastings was discovered in a crashed minivan near White Rock Lake on Monday morning after she went missing on her way to church on Sunday afternoon. No one knows right now what happened here; no suspects have been identified by police.  Yesterday, a $48,000 reward was offered for information leading to an indictment.

2. Two women, Tracy Evans and Felicia Jones, were found dead in a home on Millmar Drive on Monday afternoon. Both had been shot several times. The police initially reported they suspected the women were killed by a man that they both knew, and yesterday evening, a police manhunt was underway for a teenager who was allegedly identified by his grandfather as the killer.

3. On White Rock Creek Trail, not far from the White Rock Lake location where Zoe Hastings’ body was discovered, former Texas Aggie football player Thomas Linze Johnson called 911 to report that he had killed someone. Johnson has admitted to killing 53-year-old David Stevens shortly before eight o’clock that morning, using a machete, and told police it was a random act done because Johnson was angry and distraught over how things were going in his life.

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MURDER.

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Not All Killings Are The Same: Texas Penal Code Felony Charges

Read the news coverage and you will hear the words “murder” and “homicide” used over and over. However, lumping all these events into one big pile of “homicides” or “murders” is not what happens in the criminal justice system. While the news reports may label each killing in the Dallas area as a “homicide” or “murder” that’s not how these crimes are considered by police, prosecutors, or criminal defense lawyers.

That’s important to know because how someone is charged ties to how someone is punished under our state law.

Under the Texas Penal Code, there are several different crimes for causing the death of another. See, Chapter 19 of the Texas Penal Code entitled “Criminal Homicide.”

As defined in Texas Penal Code Section 19.01:

A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual. Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.

All of them are felonies; the key difference is in the punishment that comes with a conviction for each of these felony crimes. For the harshest felony crime for killing someone, Texas allows the death penalty. And Texas is notorious for its executions. Today, for instance, a man convicted of killing a Dallas police officer in 2001 is scheduled to be executed after being convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

At the other end of the sentencing continuum, someone who caused the death of another may face intoxication manslaughter charges. If convicted, they will face a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment for as little as two years and as long as twenty years in a Texas prison facility. (For more on drunk driving crashes where someone dies and a drunk driver is charged with intoxication manslaughter, go here.)

 

Defense Lawyer’s Plea Negotiations May Result in Different Charge and Different Sentence for a Killing

For those charged with the crime of killing someone else, they face the possibility of being convicted on the felony charge that the prosecution has chosen as the charge. However, a charge is not a conviction.

A savvy defense attorney will question what the prosecutor chose from the Texas Penal Code as the crime to charge the defendant. Either there should be no charge at all, or the charge that was decided upon by the prosecutor is heavy-handed and not supported by the evidence.

Justifiable homicides are recognized in Texas. See, “When You Can Kill in Texas,” published in Time Magazine in June 2013.

During plea negotiations, a criminal defense lawyer will work to lessen that felony charge in various ways. One battle for the defense is to review, analyze, and challenge as necessary the evidence that has been compiled by the prosecutor to support the charge.

Is it something that can be authenticated as evidence? A photocopied document, for instance, may or may not be authentic under the Texas evidence rules. If it’s not, then the document cannot be used by the prosecution in its case.

Is it admissible as evidence? Before something can be considered as evidence, either in document form or as witness testimony, it must meet the evidence standards established in Texas law. For example, hearsay testimony by a witness is not admissible evidence, IF the defense lawyer objects to it.

Was there a search done by police without a search warrant? If so, are the items taken by police in that search barred from being used against the defendant because to do so would violate his constitutional protections regarding search and seizure? (Read more about that in our post on federal and state constitutional protections against illegal search and seizures.)

One common tool that the defense lawyer uses here is a Motion to Suppress. This is a formal request to the court that specific items not be allowed to be used as evidence against the defendant because of an established legal concern.

Of course, things are much more complicated than what can be described in a single blog post. For one thing, prosecutorial misconduct abounds in this state — is there evidence that doesn’t get shown to the defense lawyer because it helps the defendant? Hiding or destroying exculpatory evidence by state prosecutors happens all the time. For another, evidence collection and processing cannot be trusted these days. 

Justice After a Killing

The point here? We’re hearing more and more about people killing other people in our part of the state — as well as around the country. However, not all killings are capital murder situations, and not all will be considered murder.

From a criminal defense perspective, it’s important to know that these deaths occur in all sorts of circumstances, and justice demands that the punishment fit the crime (and that the right person be charged in the first place).

For more information, see our web resources on crimes of violence as well as Michael Lowe’s Case Results.

 


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