Crime and Defense: Clarifying the True Meanings of Aggravated Manslaughter and Self-Defense

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

State v. Urbina, decided June 16 by the New Jersey Supreme Court is a case that brings up a lot of issues that may be of importance to our readers and will be written about over the course of two blogs. Today’s blog concerns a crime and a defense that tend to be among the most misunderstood among non-lawyers–manslaughter, and self-defense.

The basic facts of this case (although obviously they are in dispute) is that the defendant, a minor at the time, was walking away from two individuals when he turned, allegedly saw them draw weapons, and reacted by drawing his own weapon and killing one of the individuals with six gunshots to the head. When police investigated the crime scene no weapon was found on the individual shot by the defendant. The defendant’s lawyer considered a defense of self-defense but determined that given the excessive number of shots fired by the defendant, and the mystery of what happened to the alleged weapon the victim allegedly drew, the defense was not viable. The defendant plead guilty to manslaughter and informed the judge that he didn’t mean to kill the victim, but just wanted him to back up, claiming that his gun went off on its own when he pulled it out.

Most people understand premeditated murder (although premeditation itself and the amount of time required for it is an issue of debate in criminal law). Most people also seem to understand murders of passion. But aggravated manslaughter is misunderstood by many people. Some people seem to think it is a form of “lesser murder” while others think it is death that merely results from a well-intentioned accident, but neither are accurate. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1) provides that criminal homicide constitutes aggravated manslaughter when the defendant:

  1. recklessly caused death
  2. under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life

Here the word “recklessly” means the defendant “consciously disregards a substantial risk [of death to the other person].” See N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2(b)(3) for the exact definition. For example, if someone took their jeep off-roading on a beach they know to be crowded and took no precautions, this may constitute aggravated manslaughter if they killed someone. While the person may not have intended to cause death, such behavior is reckless, and considering the beach is crowded the circumstances manifest an extreme indifference to the lives of the sunbathers. The same could be said of pointing a gun at someone, if it fires and kills the individual, regardless of whether you intend to shoot them.

Self defense is an affirmative defense to aggravated manslaughter. This means if self-defense is established this will negate criminal liability. In this case the N.J. Supreme Court wrote “it is not imperative that actual necessity exist” but a defendant “must have an actual belief in the necessity of using force, and must also establish that the belief was honest and reasonable.” As an example to illustrate this point consider if someone draws a pistol and points it at you. Let’s assume the pistol is real and looks real. It is not your job to determine whether the pistol is loaded or if the person intends to harm you. In that situation if you believe there is a necessity to use force it will likely be found to be reasonable. But let’s say two minutes earlier you handed the same individual the very same pistol and know for a fact the chamber is clear and no magazine is loaded, and you know for a fact the individual does not have any rounds to load into the pistol. He then foolishly points the pistol at you in jest. Since you know the pistol is unloaded you cannot possibly have an honest belief that use of force is necessary. the same is true if the individual is unknown to you but points a clearly fake wooden toy gun at you. It would likely not be reasonable to use force against them (although matters become more complex when replica/toy weapons appear real).

Most importantly, once there is any evidence of self defense, the State is required to prove the self-defense claim does not match the facts, and must do so beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, if any doubt remains that self-defense took place then acquittal is required.

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