Breaking it down
At its most basic, murder is unlawfully taking someone else’s life. A murder conviction in Virginia has the most serious consequences of just about any criminal offense in the state.
- Capital murder and first-degree murder charges require premeditation, but second-degree murder charges can stem from extreme recklessness with no intent to kill
- Your life literally may be on the line if you’re charged with one of the forms of capital murder listed in Virginia Code §18.2-31
- A first- or second-degree murder conviction likely will mean spending years in prison.
There are few crimes as complex and emotionally fraught as murder. A life has ended. A family is grieving and wants justice. Police and prosecutors are pressured to deliver and convict a suspect before the trail of evidence grows cold. Sometimes that means a particular suspect is pursued with a form of tunnel vision — police and prosecutors have one theory they think makes sense, but don’t fully explore others, and there are always numerous sides to the story of a murder.
A murder conviction can wreck your life. You face years, or even life, in prison. Under some circumstances, you may even face the death penalty if found guilty. When you get out of prison, a murder conviction will likely mean you have trouble getting a job because of your history as a violent offender. You also may have trouble finding housing, obtaining custody of your children, or just navigating everyday life and relationships when people find out you were a convicted killer.
If you’ve been accused of or charged with any murder-related offense, you need an experienced Roanoke murder lawyer on your side. By acting early and assertively, it may be possible to mount an effective defense in order to secure your freedom and ensure a better future for you. Call our skilled attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico today at (540) 343-9349.
Types of Murder
Virginia law defines several types of murder, taking into account circumstances from the premeditation of a murder for hire to killings that are unintentional, but result from acts of extreme recklessness. Killings that are planned out in advance with malice toward the victim are punished more severely than those in which there was no intent. Some types of killings that the state considers especially shocking or malevolent may be punished by execution.
As one of the most serious crimes you can commit in Virginia, capital murder carries the most serious penalties, including the possibility of a death sentence. A conviction likely means spending the rest of your life in prison.
Virginia Code §18.2-31 details more than a dozen circumstances when a murder can be considered capital murder. The common thread among all forms of the crime is that they include the killing of another person that is willful, deliberate, and premeditated.
Some of those circumstances include:
- Killing a woman you know is pregnant
- Killing a child under age 14
- Murder for hire
- Killing while committing or attempting an act of terrorism
- Killing someone while committing or attempting a robbery or rape, or manufacturing, selling, or delivering a Schedule I or II drug
- Committing multiple murders either at the same time or within a three-year period
- Killing a law enforcement officer or firefighter in the course of their job
- Killing a witness to prevent them from testifying in a criminal case, or killing a judge to prevent the performance of their job
It is especially important that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately if you’re being investigated for capital murder or have been charged with the offense. There may be evidence that wasn’t properly collected, ways the police violated your constitutional rights, or holes in the prosecutor’s case that in a capital murder case literally could mean the difference between life and death.
First-degree murder is very similar to capital murder. In fact, Virginia Code §18.2-32 defines it as willful, deliberate, premeditated murder other than capital murder. A prosecutor may charge you with first-degree murder if there is evidence that you killed someone under any of the following circumstances:
- If the killing was by specific means: poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, or starvation
- If the killing was during the commission or attempt of a specific felony: arson, rape, forcible sodomy, object sexual penetration, robbery, burglary, or abduction (unless the felony makes it capital murder)
- If the killing was premeditated. Premeditation can occur seconds before the act is committed. It is not required that the murder be planned in advance.
If convicted of murder of the first degree, which is a Class 2 felony, you may be sentenced to spend up to life in prison and pay up to $100,000 in fines. Attempted murder of the first degree is a Class 4 felony involving a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Virginia Code §18.2-32 states that second-degree murder is all murder other than capital and first-degree murder. Generally, second-degree murder charges include for killings committed in the heat of a moment without premeditation or planning, but with malice.
Just what constitutes “malice” can be a moving target. It can be explicit, meaning you intended to injure or kill someone or you can have malice without intent. Sometimes it can simply mean extreme recklessness, in a form of murder known under common law as “depraved heart murder,” or knowing that your actions have a very high risk of causing death and simply not caring.
If you plead or are found guilty of second-degree murder, you may face a prison term of up to 40 years. The felony conviction will permanently be on your criminal record, which will severely limit your employment prospects upon your release from prison. You will also be barred from owning or using firearms for the rest of your life.
It’s a long-held principle of common law that when your actions while committing a felony result in a death — even if you didn’t intend to — the killing is a murder. Virginia codifies that principle in §18.2-33, which makes accidentally killing someone while committing a felony a form of second-degree murder punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
Virginia recognizes the crimes of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Manslaughter does not require intent. Both crimes are Class 5 felonies unless there are aggravating circumstances. Penalties may include up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $2,500. If there are aggravating circumstances, penalties increase.
Murder Investigations Can Be Overwhelming
When facing a charge as serious as murder — which is the only crime in Virginia for which you can be executed if convicted — it’s critical to seek advice from an experienced defense attorney as early in the process as is possible. A good lawyer who knows how to handle murder cases, from investigation to trial, can look at all of the evidence — witness accounts, fingerprints, DNA, etc. — with a trained eye and see the parts of the story the evidence doesn’t tell, the parts that cast reasonable doubt on the police and prosecutor’s versions of events, the parts that may help you avoid a conviction or the some of the harshest penalties on the books.
Defending Against a Roanoke Murder Charge
Every murder case is different. Depending on the facts of your specific case, your Roanoke homicide lawyer may attempt to:
- Suppress the prosecution’s evidence — It is important to have a lawyer who will review evidence seized by law enforcement to ensure the seizure was legal. If police did not follow proper procedures, your lawyer should ask to have the evidence excluded. For example, if the police seized the suspected murder weapon after a warrantless and unreasonable search of your home, business, or vehicle, that weapon may be excluded. Similarly, a DNA sample that was improperly collected, labeled, stored, or analyzed should not be used against you at trial.
- Show reasonable doubt — The judge will instruct the jury to return a verdict of not guilty should the prosecutor fail to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that if your lawyer shows there is a reasonable possibility that you did not kill the victim, there is a chance you will be acquitted. Additionally, if your lawyer demonstrates a possibility that you did not act intentionally, you may receive a conviction for a less serious offense. A skilled criminal defense attorney may also show reasonable doubt regarding your guilt by arguing that you were, in fact, a victim of mistaken identity. This is usually accomplished by reinterpreting the prosecution’s evidence, challenging the witnesses, and presenting new evidence that points to your innocence.
- Argue an affirmative defense — When you use an affirmative defense, you admit that you killed another person, but you argue that the killing was justified. One of the most effective affirmative defenses to murder is self-defense, which is available if you reasonably believed the use of force was necessary to keep the person from killing, sexually assaulting, or seriously wounding someone. Your attorney may also argue that you could not fully appreciate the gravity of the incident due to having a diminished capacity. This defense is rare; however, if you are facing a first-degree murder charge and you were intoxicated at the time, your attorney may be able to negotiate for a lesser conviction.
Facing murder charges in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with a crime related to murder in Roanoke, the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico can help evaluate the details of your case and your options. For an appointment at our Roanoke office, call us at (540) 343-9349.