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Manslaughter: When Killing Someone Does Not Mean Murder – Texas Penal Code §19.04

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Tragedies happen every day here in Texas, where someone dies because of the actions or failures to act of another person.  Sometimes, these deaths are criminally culpable and sometimes they are not.  It is when someone dies because of another person’s intentional, knowing, or reckless action or as a result of their criminal negligence that the police can make an arrest based upon “criminal homicide” under Texas Law.  This can mean several things.

Criminal Homicide in Texas

Criminal homicide in Texas corresponds with four different criminal charges as defined in Texas Penal Code §19.01: (1) murder; (2) capital murder; (3) manslaughter; and (4) criminally negligent homicide.  With each of these crimes, the corresponding penalties upon conviction vary.

In Texas, capital murder comes with a death sentence.  Manslaughter, by comparison, is defined as a second-degree felony carrying a 2-to-20-year prison term.

Manslaughter Involves Reckless Conduct

In Texas, someone can be found guilty of “manslaughter” if it is shown that he recklessly caused the death of an individual, even if there was no intent to kill.  It is a lesser charge than murder or capital murder.  Specifically, Texas Penal Code §19.04 states:

MANSLAUGHTER.  (a)  A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual. (b)  An offense under this section is a felony of the second degree.

What is reckless conduct in this situation?

The Texas Legislature has provided a specific definition for recklessness that must be followed by law enforcement and prosecutors when arresting and prosecuting someone on manslaughter charges.  Pursuant to Texas Penal Code §6.03(c):

“A person acts recklessly, or is reckless, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.”

Recklessness is a conscious act.  It involves a huge (“substantial”) and unacceptable (“unjustifiable”) risk that someone will die (“the circumstances exist or the result will occur”).  This is a risk that an ordinary person would not reasonably take (“gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise”) given the circumstances.

Proof of the accused’s recklessness is a critical component to any manslaughter charge.  Under the statutory definition, the prosecution must provide authenticated and admissible evidence of recklessness within the accused’s mental state.

How does the state prove recklessness?

Given that someone’s mental state is what is going on inside their head, how is “recklessness” shown by an ADA?  In Texas, the defendant’s culpable mental state can be proven using inferences that can be drawn from the surrounding circumstances of the case alongside his or her statements and conduct at the time of the killing.  Guevara v. State, 152 S.W.3d 45, 50 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004).

To show recklessness, the prosecutor does not have to prove premeditation on the part of the accused in order to obtain a conviction for manslaughter.  However, as in all criminal matters, the state will have to establish its case with proof that meets the high evidentiary burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  As the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has explained in Cavazos v. State, 382 S.W.3d 377, 284 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012):

“…because the definition of recklessness is disregarding a risk that circumstances exist or the result will occur, the reckless mens rea for manslaughter applies to either the nature of the conduct or the result of the conduct.

“We conclude that causing death while consciously disregarding a risk that death will occur differs from intending to cause serious bodily injury with a resulting death only in the respect that a less culpable mental state establishes its commission. See TEX.CODE CRIM. PROC. ANN. art. 37.09(3).”

Voluntary Manslaughter versus Murder

Given that someone has died at the hands of another, how does manslaughter differ from a murder charge under Texas law?  The key distinction is that reckless behavior is different from acting with intent.

Murder in Texas happens when someone “…intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual,” or when an individual “intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits and act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.”  Texas Penal Code §19.02.

Pointing a Gun Comparison

Consider the situation where someone points a gun at someone else.  That act alone is reckless (even if they believe that the gun is not loaded).

As explained by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, “… a reckless state of mind may be inferred or presumed from the act of pointing a gun at someone.” Guzman v. State, 188 S.W.3d 185, 193-94 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006).

However, if someone points a gun at someone else during the course of a robbery and then pulls the trigger, the facts go beyond mere recklessness.  Here, it can be argued as having the intent to kill and form the basis of a murder charge.  Wilkerson v. State, 881 S.W.2d 321, 324 (Tex. Crim. App. 1994).

Voluntary versus Involuntary Manslaughter

In situations of untimely death, some states make a distinction in their criminal jurisprudence between acts of “voluntary manslaughter” and “involuntary manslaughter.”  The Texas Legislature has declined to do so.  In Texas, the manslaughter statute found in Texas Penal Code §19.04 combines these two distinctions into one charge.

In Texas, instances of “voluntary” and “involuntary” manslaughter both come under the same statutory umbrella and essentially are distinguished by the range of recklessness involved in the incident.  Within the TPC §19.04 criminal charge, the penalties are different, and enhanced, if the state can prove up the more severe instance of voluntary manslaughter.

Intoxication Manslaughter and Vehicular Manslaughter

To complicate things further, there are some types of manslaughter that do get their own special statutory treatment.  In Texas, the prosecution can proceed under specific Texas statutes for the crimes of (1) intoxication manslaughter and (2) vehicular manslaughter.

Intoxication manslaughter involves allegations that a death occurred while the accused was driving drunk or DWI.  Vehicular manslaughter alleges the accused recklessly caused the death of a motor vehicle accident victim.

Defenses to Manslaughter Charges

For those accused of manslaughter in Texas, there are several possible defenses that can be argued, depending upon the circumstances of the individual case.  A good defense lawyer will approach each matter with respect for its own unique characteristics.

Challenges to the Prosecution’s Case

Of course, the first line of defense will involve a detailed review of the prosecution’s case to find its weaknesses and gaps.  Witness statements and documentary evidence must be weighed not only against the elements of the manslaughter statute, but also to determine if there have been any evidentiary or constitutional violations during the investigation, arrest, or prosecution of the case.

For more, read:

Case for the Defense

The defense may also be able to assert specific lines of defense as legal arguments against a manslaughter conviction.  Using the defense’s own investigation and building of evidence, the following may be asserted, among other legal defenses such as insanity and heat of passion:

Acting in Self-Defense

When self-defense is asserted in a manslaughter case, the defendant must first acknowledge that the killing occurred as a result of his or her actions.  Thereafter, the defendant must prove that the law provides a shield to conviction because of a legally recognized justification, acting in self-defense.

As such, self-defense is a “confession-and-avoidance defense.”  Juarez v. State, 308 S.W.3d 398, 404 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010).

To avoid a conviction, self-defense must be shown with authenticated and admissible evidence introduced by the defense attorney that establishes the elements of Texas Penal Code §9.31 which defines “self-defense” as:

(a)  Except as provided in Subsection (b), a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.  The actor’s belief that the force was immediately necessary as described by this subsection is presumed to be reasonable if the actor:

(1)  knew or had reason to believe that the person against whom the force was used:

(A)  unlawfully and with force entered, or was attempting to enter unlawfully and with force, the actor’s occupied habitation, vehicle, or place of business or employment;

(B)  unlawfully and with force removed, or was attempting to remove unlawfully and with force, the actor from the actor’s habitation, vehicle, or place of business or employment; or

(C)  was committing or attempting to commit aggravated kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated robbery;

(2)  did not provoke the person against whom the force was used; and

(3)  was not otherwise engaged in criminal activity, other than a Class C misdemeanor that is a violation of a law or ordinance regulating traffic at the time the force was used. 

(b)  The use of force against another is not justified:

(1)  in response to verbal provocation alone;

(2)  to resist an arrest or search that the actor knows is being made by a peace officer, or by a person acting in a peace officer’s presence and at his direction, even though the arrest or search is unlawful, unless the resistance is justified under Subsection (c);

(3)  if the actor consented to the exact force used or attempted by the other;

(4)  if the actor provoked the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force, unless:

(A)  the actor abandons the encounter, or clearly communicates to the other his intent to do so reasonably believing he cannot safely abandon the encounter; and

(B)  the other nevertheless continues or attempts to use unlawful force against the actor; or

(5)  if the actor sought an explanation from or discussion with the other person concerning the actor’s differences with the other person while the actor was:

(A)  carrying a weapon in violation of Section 46.02;  or

(B)  possessing or transporting a weapon in violation of Section 46.05. 

(c)  The use of force to resist an arrest or search is justified:

(1)  if, before the actor offers any resistance, the peace officer (or person acting at his direction) uses or attempts to use greater force than necessary to make the arrest or search; and

(2)  when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the peace officer’s (or other person’s) use or attempted use of greater force than necessary. 

(d)  The use of deadly force is not justified under this subchapter except as provided in Sections 9.32, 9.33, and 9.34. 

(e)  A person who has a right to be present at the location where the force is used, who has not provoked the person against whom the force is used, and who is not engaged in criminal activity at the time the force is used is not required to retreat before using force as described by this section. 

(f)  For purposes of Subsection (a), in determining whether an actor described by Subsection (e) reasonably believed that the use of force was necessary, a finder of fact may not consider whether the actor failed to retreat.

Defending Against Manslaughter Charges in Texas

Any case involving the death of someone constitutes a serious case with a potentially serious felony conviction where the accused will be forced to spend years of his or her life behind bars.  Experienced criminal defense attorneys recognize that many ADAs are zealous in their work, and may try to proceed with the most serious felony charges they can find when a death has occurred.

There will be the temptation to proceed on murder charges even if the evidence of intent is weak or non-existent.  A murder charge may really meet the statutory elements of manslaughter.  And, there will be times when manslaughter charges are filed even if there is a clear defense, like self-defense, available for the accused.

Anyone being investigated or arrested on manslaughter charges is wise to enlist the aid of an experienced homicide criminal defense attorney to help them. 

The defense lawyer can work toward dismissal of the charges in some cases.  In other situations, he will may be able to negotiate the charges filed against the accused down for a lesser sentence.  See, e.g., “Will You Go to State Jail or Texas Prison? The Importance of Plea Negotiations.

Also read:

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For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read his in-depth articles, ”The Early Part of a Texas Criminal Case in State or Federal Court” and learn about Michael Lowe’s Things to Know if You are Being Investigated for a Crime in Texas.


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