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AstroChuck's avatar

Who can answer a legal question for me?

Asked by AstroChuck (37438points) February 23rd, 2012 from iPhone

This is probably one of those “Well…duh!” questions but I admit to being less than informed in legal matters.
Anyway, after watching Legally Blonde I was left wondering what the exact charges would be for someone who intends to kill one person in cold blood but accidentally kills someone else instead.

This is the scenario in a nutshell: Reese Witherspoon’s character gets a witness to confess on the stand to shooting her father. She had meant to shoot her stepmother (who was on trial for murdering her husband) but accidentally shot and killed her father instead. After the confession the judge orders her to be taken into custody where she is to be charged for the murder of her father. 
My question is this: 
Since the killer never intended to kill her victim wouldn’t she be charged with a lesser degree of murder? And since she was really trying to kill her stepmother would she additionally be charged with attempted murder? Or because she pulled the trigger with malice aforethought ultimately killing someone, would she be charged with murder in the first degree regardless of whom the victim was?

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23 Answers

missingbite's avatar

Depends on where you live but most likely First Degree Murder. Victim wouldn’t matter since you were planning on committing a felony. If someone dies while you are committing a felony, you get charged with First Degree Murder.

AstroChuck's avatar

@missingbite- I don’t believe accidentally killing someone while committing a felony is first degree murder as that lacks malice aforethought. Of course the scenario I gave did have forethought involved though, just not against the unintended victim.

jaytkay's avatar

Looks like here in Illinois it would be 1st degree murder

A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits first degree murder if…he either intends to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual or anotherIllinois Compiled Statutes

AstroChuck's avatar

@jaytkay- This murder took place in Massachusetts. I wonder how many states would take that view. I was thinking more on the lines of her being charged with second degree murder for the murder of her father and attempted murder for her intended victim but I think a first degree charge would be just.
Do you suppose she could be charged with attempted murder in addition to murder in the first?

Judi's avatar

She could be charged with 1st degree murder because the murder happened during the commission of a crime, the crime being attempted murder. (if my expertise of watching way to many episodes of Law and Order serves me right.)

MollyMcGuire's avatar

The doctrine of transferred intent kicks in and the prosecution goes right on as though you had intended to kill the bystander.

ucme's avatar

I threw a snowball at this teacher once, I swore I was aiming for a kid standing close by, I still got a detention & after school target practice.

augustlan's avatar

I always understood the law to be what others have said. If someone gets killed during an armed robbery, for instance, even if murder was not intended, the perpetrator is charged with first degree murder.

AstroChuck's avatar

I don’t think so, Auggie.
Intent to commit a felony such as armed robbery doesn’t equal intent to kill. The intention is to commit a felony (lesser than killing someone) and I can’t see how that by itself can be sufficient to establish a charge of first degree murder. But I might be very wrong here.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

@missingbite hit the nail on the head. Nancy Grace has educated me on that one.

jaytkay's avatar

The Illinois statute I linked to also agrees with @missingbite. Expanding the text I quoted earlier:

A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits first degree murder if, in performing the acts which cause the death:

(1) he either intends to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual or another, or knows that such acts will cause death to that individual or another; or

(2) he knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another; or

(3) he is attempting or committing a forcible felony other than second degree murder.

Seaofclouds's avatar

@AstroChuck It varies from state to state, but generally, what @augustlan said is right. Sometimes, it’s not even the perpetrator that gets charged with the murder, it can be the accomplice in the crime. Once there’s a crime already in progress, the legal ramifications of what happens during that initial crime change, even if the outcome from the crime is not what was intended when the crime started.

Here’s an example recently in Oklahoma. The girl shot someone trying to break into her home did not get charged with his murder. Instead, his accomplice in the attempted robbery got charged with his murder because they were committing the crime (attempted robbery) together when his accomplish got shot (and killed).

Zaku's avatar

The distinction added by the word “forcible” in @jaytkay‘s quote of Illinois law is important. It won’t get you first-degree murder if someone dies as a result of you tampering with the mail in a seemingly-not-dangerous non-forcible way, even though tampering with the mail is a felony.

e.g. You burn someone else’s mail, not realizing one letter was a warning that would have saved someone’s life. You don’t get first degree murder, just felony mail tampering.

e.g. You overpower a mail man and rob some mail from his truck, also intercepting a warning that results in death. You might be chargeable with murder because you caused it while using force in a felony.

At least, that’s what I think that means, though maybe the causation is too distant in that latter example I gave.

AstroChuck's avatar

@Seaofclouds- A murder charge is something I can see. But murder in the first degree? That’s something I don’t understand.

missingbite's avatar

@AstroChuck First degree just means it was planned. Since the original felony was planned and not in the heat of the moment, the planned part falls over to the murder. Someone dies while you are robbing a bank, which was a planned robbery, it’s considered first degree. It is probably set that way to get the convicted the most time in jail. In most cases, they are charged with both first degree and either second degree or manslaughter in order to give the jury options.

AstroChuck's avatar

My mistake then. I always thought first degree murder was defined as a killing that was both willful and premeditated.

missingbite's avatar

Keep in mind not all felonies would count. It must have an element of danger (I think) to the felony. I believe it is called the Felony Murder Rule.

bkcunningham's avatar

It would depend on what charges the District Attorney decides to bring based on the evidence, @AstroChuck.

Here’s a real example:

Also, from this website:

In terms of willfulness, first degree murderers must have the specific intent to end a human life. This intent does not necessarily have to have been focused on the actual victim. A murder in which the killer intends to kill but kills the wrong person or a random person would still constitute first degree murder. Furthermore, under many state laws, killing through action showing a depraved indifference to human life can qualify as murder in the first degree.

AstroChuck's avatar

Okay, I think I get it. If someone gets killed during a felony such as arson or armed robbery, since these are felonies where there is an obvious threat to human lives, the felon may be charged with first degree murder. But accidentally killing someone as you drive off in the car you have just stolen would get you a lesser charge of vehicular manslaughter or second degree murder.
Does that sound right?

missingbite's avatar

Probably right. Unless you car jacked the stolen car with a gun. Then you would be back to first degree murder.

AstroChuck's avatar

Okay. Strike the grand theft auto and replace with necrophilia.

augustlan's avatar

Yeah, I think you’ve got it now, Chuck. :)

AstroChuck's avatar

Those bodies are known to explode after being in the heat awhile.

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