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12 Defenses to Murder and Manslaughter Charges in New Jersey

April 19, 2024 | Posted In Criminal Law

Murder and manslaughter are serious crimes that carry serious penalties. Depending on the specific charges you are facing, a conviction could result in a 30-year prison sentence or even life behind bars. But, regardless of the facts of your case, you have defenses available, and it is critical that you work with a highly experienced New Jersey murder lawyer who can defend you by all means available.

When you hire an experienced New Jersey murder lawyer to represent you, your lawyer will carefully review the facts of your case to determine exactly what happened and why. Your lawyer will also request all of the evidence that prosecutors plan to use against you—and prosecutors are required to disclose this evidence under the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey law. After examining the facts and the evidence, your lawyer will advise you regarding the defenses you have available, and your lawyer will work to build a defense strategy that protects you to the fullest extent possible.

How Can You Defend Against a Murder or Manslaughter Charge in New Jersey?

So, how can you defend against a murder or manslaughter charge in New Jersey? Depending on the facts of your case and the evidence that prosecutors have in their possession (or will be able to obtain through the government’s investigation), the following are examples of defenses that an experienced New Jersey murder lawyer may be able to assert on your behalf:

1. Failure to Meet the Prosecution’s Burden of Proof

In all criminal cases—including all murder and manslaughter cases—the prosecution has the burden of proof. This means that you do not necessarily need to prove your innocence in order to avoid a conviction. If the prosecutors handling your case cannot prove that you are guilty, then you are entitled to a “Not guilty” verdict at trial.

To secure a “Guilty” verdict, prosecutors must be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If prosecutors present their evidence and the jury (or the judge if you opt for a bench trial) is not thoroughly convinced that you committed the crime in question, then the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that you are entitled to have the charges against you dismissed.

With this in mind, a key defense strategy in many cases is to focus on exposing flaws in the prosecution’s case. If you can show that the prosecution doesn’t have the evidence it needs to win a conviction, then you do not have to show that you are innocent.

2. You Did Not Act “Purposely” or “Knowingly”

Under New Jersey’s murder statute (N.J.S.A. Section 2C:11-3), prosecutors must be able to prove that you acted “purposely” or “knowingly,” or that you caused someone’s death while engaged in other criminal activity. As a result, if you can show that you did not act “purposely” or “knowingly,” then you should be able to avoid a murder conviction even if you committed an act that resulted in someone else’s death.

In New Jersey murder cases, prosecutors do not need to prove intent to kill. While some states’ murder laws require evidence of intent, New Jersey’s murder law does not. However, the requirement for proof of purposeful or knowing action still requires evidence of a defendant’s subjective state of mind—and this can be difficult for prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in many cases. Thus, even if you cannot affirmatively show that you did not act “purposely” or “knowingly,” if your New Jersey murder lawyer can show that the prosecution’s evidence is lacking, this can be an effective defense strategy as well.

3. You Did Not Act “Recklessly”

In manslaughter cases, prosecutors do not need to prove that you acted “purposely” or “knowingly.” Instead, they can secure a conviction if they can prove that you acted “recklessly” in committing an act that resulted in someone else’s death. Under New Jersey’s manslaughter statute (N.J.S.A. Section 2C:11-4), prosecutors can secure a conviction based on the following:

  • Manslaughter: A criminal homicide committed recklessly or “in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation.”
  • Aggravated Manslaughter: A criminal homicide committed by recklessly caus[ing] death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.”

Whether an action is reckless depends heavily on the specific facts and circumstances involved. If prosecutors do not have the evidence they need to prove that your actions were reckless under the circumstances at hand, then showing that their evidence is insufficient could be enough to avoid a “Guilty” verdict at trial.

4. You Were Not Involved in Other Criminal Activity

Another way that prosecutors can prove murder or manslaughter in New Jersey is by showing that a defendant caused someone else’s death while attempting to commit, committing or fleeing the scene after committing another crime. This applies to specific offenses under New Jersey’s murder statute (robbery, sexual assault, arson, burglary, kidnapping, carjacking, criminal escape or terrorism), and, in manslaughter cases, it applies to attempting to elude law enforcement.

If you are facing this type of murder or manslaughter charge, you may be able to avoid a conviction by arguing that prosecutors cannot prove that you committed (or attempted to commit) the other crime in question. However, it is important to keep in mind that prosecutors may argue that you acted purposely, knowingly or recklessly as well. A comprehensive defense strategy is key, and this makes it crucial to work with an experienced New Jersey murder lawyer who knows the law and who can do what it takes to protect you.

5. Alibi

If you did not kill someone, then presenting an alibi could be your strongest defense. An alibi is an explanation of your whereabouts at the time that the alleged offense was committed. For example, if an alleged murder or manslaughter occurred outside of a bar on a night that you were at home with friends or family, then you may have a strong alibi defense that you can use to fight your murder or manslaughter charge in New Jersey court.

From social media posts to surveillance camera footage to eyewitness testimony, your lawyer may be able to use several different types of evidence to show that you were not at the scene of the alleged crime at the time it was supposedly committed. If you believe there may be any evidence that your lawyer can use to establish an alibi, this is something you should be sure to bring up during your initial consultation.

6. Mistaken Identity

The defense of mistaken identity involves showing that prosecutors are putting the wrong person on trial. If you were mistakenly identified as the perpetrator based on your whereabouts, personal characteristics, or any other facts or circumstances, then your lawyer may be able to use this to defend you as well.

A possible mistaken identity is a defense to murder and manslaughter charges in New Jersey as well. Remember, it is up to the prosecution to prove that you are guilty. If the police identified you based on your whereabouts or features such as height, weight or hair color that could just as easily be used to identify someone else, this may not be enough to establish your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

7. Self-Defense

If you acted in self-defense, you are not guilty of murder or manslaughter under New Jersey law. Under New Jersey’s self-defense law (N.J.S.A. Section 3C:3-4.a), you are entitled to use force against another person if you “reasonably believe[] that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting [yourself] against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.” This includes the use of deadly force when you reasonably believe such force is necessary to protect yourself against death or serious bodily harm.

Self-defense is what is known as an “affirmative defense” under New Jersey law. While most defenses to murder and manslaughter charges focus on preventing the prosecution from meeting its burden of proof, with self-defense you have the burden of proving that the defense applies. But, if you are able to assert self-defense successfully, then there should be no question that you are entitled to an acquittal.

8. Defense of Others

Similar to self-defense, “defense of others” is an affirmative defense that justifies the use of deadly force in some cases. If you acted to save someone else’s life or save them from serious bodily harm, then New Jersey law says that you do not deserve to be convicted of murder or manslaughter. While there are some exceptions, these exceptions only apply in limited circumstances—and you should not make any assumptions about the defenses you may or may not have available. An experienced New Jersey murder lawyer will be able to determine if asserting the “defense of others” defense is a viable way to fight your case.

9. Diminished Capacity

The defense of diminished capacity focuses on challenging the prosecution’s evidence of your mental state at the time of the alleged murder or manslaughter. Under the New Jersey statutes (N.J.S.A. Section 2C:4-2), this is referred to as having a “mental disease or defect.” The law states:

“Evidence that the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect is admissible whenever it is relevant to prove that the defendant did not have a state of mind which is an element of the offense. . . .”

Along with “diminished capacity,” this is often referred to as the “insanity” defense. It can be asserted in various circumstances, and if you believe it may apply in your case, you should discuss this with your New Jersey murder lawyer during your initial consultation as well.

10. Violation of Your Fourth Amendment Rights

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the police can only stop you if they have reasonable suspicion, and they can only arrest you if they have probable cause. The police also need probable cause to obtain a search warrant unless an exception applies. If the police stopped you without reasonable suspicion or arrested you without probable cause, or if they conducted a warrantless search without justification, this could render the state’s evidence inadmissible in court. If prosecutors can’t present evidence against you, they won’t be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

11. Violation of Your Fifth Amendment Rights

Violations of your Fifth Amendment rights can also prevent prosecutors from presenting their evidence in court. For example, if the police violated your Fifth Amendment rights by interrogating you in custody without reading your Miranda rights and you confessed to committing murder or manslaughter, your confession could be inadmissible in court.

12. Violation of Your Sixth Amendment Rights

The Sixth Amendment provides important protections for criminal defendants in New Jersey as well. These include the right to counsel, the right to an impartial jury, the right to confront your accusers and the right to a speedy trial. If police, prosecutors or the court violate your Sixth Amendment rights at any stage of your case, this could entitle you to a dismissal of your murder or manslaughter charge—but it will be up to you and your lawyer to show that dismissal is warranted.

Negotiating a Plea Bargain in a New Jersey Murder or Manslaughter Case

What about negotiating a plea bargain? Plea bargaining is an option in New Jersey murder and manslaughter cases, and it will be the best option in some cases. If prosecutors have the evidence they need to secure a conviction—and if their evidence is admissible in court—then relying on an experienced New Jersey murder lawyer to negotiate a deal on your behalf could be the best way to minimize the consequences of your arrest.

Schedule a Confidential Consultation with a New Jersey Murder Lawyer Today

If you are facing murder or manslaughter charges in New Jersey, we encourage you to contact us promptly for a confidential consultation. To speak with an experienced New Jersey murder lawyer in confidence as soon as possible, call 877-435-6371 or tell us how we can contact you online now.

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