Attempted Homicide Laws & Charges

Of the various crimes that may be punished by the common society that we live in today, there are none out there more serious than the crime of killing a person. Murder refers to the intentional taking of someone else's life, and apart from the crimes at a federal level of treason and espionage, murder is the only crime in the United States today wherein the death penalty might be used as a potential punishment, although this is only permitted in a number of particular states.

There is a difference between murder and homicide. In murder, there is the intent to kill a particular person. However, homicide is a broader term in which the action of the accused cause the death of another person, whether or not that action was really intended to kill that person. For example, if two people were arguing and one of them pushed the other person, causing the latter's head to hid something sharp resulting in death, that is homicide but not murder because there was no intent to kill.

In Massachusetts, attempted homicide is covered by Section 16 of Chapter 265 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

What Is Attempted Homicide?

In attempted homicide, the action, whether it was intended or not to kill a person, did not actually result into death. Just like many other crimes, it's worth noting that for attempted homicide to be prosecuted by the U.S. courts, both an action and an intention must be proven. In other words, in a case of attempted murder, a person must directly and purposefully take a step towards killing someone else, and must be knowingly determined to kill that person. For attempted homicide to be criminal, the action that could have caused death was done because of the desire to kill, whether it was premeditated or caused by a sudden emotional outburst.

In order for a conviction of attempted homicide to be successful, a prosecutor must be able to show that the accused carried out the action that could have killed the other person. Courts have previously explained that the requirement for what defines a direct step towards an attempted homicide involves ensuring that the person goes beyond merely intending to kill, and thus crosses the line to actually perpetrating that crime although the objective of killing was not actually achieved.

While preparation might involve thinking about committing a crime, talking about committing a crime, or actively planning to do it, perpetration involves taking actions that put the previous plans in motion, and therefore would contribute towards the intended killing. While the actions that are suggested as enough to be a direct step towards the attempted murder can differ from one case to a next, there are many actions that can qualify, including:

  • Tracking, ambushing, or stalking a person to learn more in the hope of eventually killing that person
  • Luring the person into a specific location wherein killing him or her might be easier or more possible
  • Breaking into a person's home or property in order to track that person and then kill him or her
  • Constructing and collecting all of the materials required in order to commit the crime, such as the parts of a bomb or a firearm.
  • Soliciting or convincing another person to kill or you, or even knowingly convincing an unwitting person to take part in the crime.

Defenses for Attempted Homicide

Obviously, the highly serious nature of the crime of attempted homicide can mean that preparing an adequate defense against such a charge may be very difficult. Some prosecutions, however, still fail simply because it is not possible for the state attorney to prove that the accused committed an action that constitutes as a direct step towards the attempted homicide. In other circumstances, the prosecution may fail simply because of the inability to convince the jury that the defendant had a specific intent to commit the crime. Other defenses that may be possible, such as:

  • Impossibility. The defense of impossibility suggests that the accused will not deny having committed the acts, but instead claims that even if everything in question in the action went according to plan, the person would not have died anyway. For example, the accused may try to claim that the gun that would be used in the plan is a replica gun that could not function to kill someone. However, it's worth noting that some states have passed laws that mean that the impossibility defense has been largely abolished.
  • Withdrawal or renunciation. Some states within the U.S. may allow for a renunciation defense, which is sometimes referred to as withdrawal. In this defense, the idea is that even though the accused may have committed one direct step towards committing the crime, they then decided to abandon the plan. In this defense, instead of proving that the defendant failed to take a direct step, the defending lawyer must prove that the defendant abandoned the initial plan.

Intention in Attempted Homicide

As mentioned previously, one important aspect to keep in mind in attempted murder cases is that it is not possible to accidentally commit the crime. This is also the case with attempted homicide. If the perpetrator had prepared and planned for killing the person, carried out the plans, but these failed to cause the death of the victim, this is actually attempted murder.

Meanwhile, there is also the possibility that there was no prior plan (unlike in murder where there is a plan), but because of emotional circumstances, in the heat of passion, a person may suddenly have the desire to kill another person, such as when that person finds out that the victim had been defrauding him that resulted in his filing for bankruptcy. If the action does not actually cause death, this is criminal attempted homicide.If this had resulted into the death of the victim, the charge would be voluntary manslaughter. Here, there was still the intent to kill although there was no premeditated plan.

Punishments for Attempted Homicide

The fact that killing a person is regarded to be the most serious crime there is, and therefore has the most serious penalties, it makes sense that attempted homicide would also be punished quite harshly. However, while some states will allow for the suggestion of the death penalty in cases of murder, that punishment will not be possible in cases of attempted murder or homicide.

Attempted homicide will always be referred to as a felony offense, and some states will typically impose a prison sentence that is about equal to half of a sentence associated with murder convictions. It's worth acknowledging that just like with homicide, attempted homicide can be charged as either a second degree or first degree offense. While first degree attempted homicide means that the person involved premeditated and intentionally committed acts in the attempt to kill someone else, second degree attempted homicide means that the accused acted without premeditation, or attempted to kill another person in a fit of emotion or passion. Second degree homicide can also be applied to cases wherein death occurs when the accused is involved in committing another felony like burglary or arson.

Most of the time, a successful conviction for first degree attempted homicide will generally lead to a much lengthier prison sentence than a conviction for a second degree one. While first degree crime can be punishable with life sentence, the second degree crime usually comes with a prison sentence of between five and fifteen years.

In Massachusetts, punishment as indicated in Section 16 of Chapter 265 is imprisonment in a state prison of not more than 20 years or a fine of not more than $1000 plus imprisonment in jail of not more than 2.5 years.

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