In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the distinction between murder and manslaughter charges is a complex legal issue. The difference between murder and manslaughter is malice. When malice is present, the killing is murder. When it is absent, the killing can be no more than manslaughter. The Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a death was not the result of an accident. An accidental homicide, contrary to the intention of the parties, occurring during the performance of an unlawful, but not felonious, act or during the improper performance of a lawful act constitutes involuntary manslaughter.
Experienced defense attorneys recognize that this legal requirement forces the commonwealth to not only establish who committed an offense but also prove some elements of why and how a killing occurred. Accordingly, in cases where there is no doubt who committed the crime, it is often to the advantage of the defendant to have his attorney expose doubt that may exist in the Commonwealth's evidence of how the crime occurred. For this reason, murder cases can be among the most difficult trials for a prosecutor.
I faced this very issue in a recent jury trial. In that case, forensic evidence illustrated that the defendant fired a fatal gunshot into the victim's head at point-blank range. He admitted to police that he shot the victim. However, no other evidence from the case illustrated the existence of malice. Although that defendant was charged with first-degree murder the jury ultimately convicted him of the lesser crime of manslaughter. Despite that defendant's exposure to a potential life in jail he was ultimately sentenced to serve five years' incarceration.
In addition to the complexities that arise out of the grade of offense in distinctions between murder and manslaughter, murder charges often involve intricate forensic evidence. The prosecution of a person accused of taking a human life is perhaps the most severe obligation of a Commonwealth's Attorney. Therefore the prosecution and law enforcement will use every tool available to seek justice in a murder trial.
Although many of the issues presented in movie and television dramas (such as CSI, Law and Order, The Closer) are fictitious, real-life murder prosecutions frequently employ the most advanced forensic technology. There are, however, ways to illustrate flaws in even the most advanced forensic evidence. If you or a loved one is accused of an offense alleging a criminal killing, you must consider an attorney with years of experience in this field.
Contact us if you have been charged with murder or manslaughter to get help fighting for your rights.