There are two types of murder under Massachusetts law: first degree and second degree. First degree murder is where the person intentionally killed another person with premeditation and deliberation.
First degree murder also can be charged when someone commits a felony and death is a result. This is referred to in Massachusetts and some other states as felony murder. To be convicted of felony murder, the state prosecutor does not need to prove that you intentionally killed the person. Rather, it must only be proven that the person was killed as a consequence of your committing another felony that can be punished by death or life in prison.
Second degree murder in Massachusetts can be charged when you intentionally killed an individual but did not premeditate the crime. To be convicted of second degree murder, the killing must have been done with malice aforethought, but without premeditation. These types of killings often happen in the spur of the moment, such as during an argument. The accused definitely intended to kill the person, but there was no plan up to that moment to commit the crime.
Another charge in Massachusetts that involves the killing of another person is manslaughter. Two types of manslaughter that can be charged are:
- Voluntary: This includes the intention to kill another person, but usually requires provocation for it to be considered voluntary. There is an external event or circumstance that reduces the guilt of the person who is charged.
- Involuntary: Death resulted but there was no intent to kill. This typically occurs when another crime is committed that results in the death of a person. Or, there may be serious negligence where recklessness led to death. A drunk driving fatality is a common situation where involuntary manslaughter can be charged.
Massachusetts Murder Conviction
To be convicted of first degree murder in Massachusetts, the following three elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Premeditated malice: This refers to your thinking process in developing the motivation to kill another human being. It means that your actions were not spontaneous. You acted after thinking about what you intended to do. The law in this state does not require that this premeditation period lasted long, only long enough to give you the time to weigh whether you will or will not commit the act.
- Malice aforethought: You possessed the intent to cause a fatal injury or serious harm without legal justification, such as self defense or defending another person. To prove malice aforethought, the prosecution must show the intent to kill; intent to cause serious harm; the intent to create a high probability that death or harm would result from your actions.
- Extreme cruelty or atrocity: This applies to murders that were notably savage and brutal. A jury will determine whether this element existed or not. Factors that are involved include amount of suffering the victim underwent; degree of physical injuries; how many times the victim was shot, struck or affected by the weapon; the type of weapon used.
To be convicted of felony murder, the prosecution must prove the elements of the alleged felony you committed, and death must have resulted from the consequences of the felony.
Massachusetts Murder Laws and Penalties
The maximum sentence for a conviction for first degree murder is life imprisonment without parole. There is no death penalty in this state. All convictions for first degree murder result in an automatic appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, but few appeals are successful.
For second degree murder, you can receive up to a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 15 years served. If you are under 18 and are convicted of first degree murder, you can receive life in prison with eligibility for parole in 20 or 30 years.
In a second degree murder charge, the defendant may waive their right to a jury trial and ask for a trial by a judge; this is referred to as a bench trial.
Mitigating Circumstances for Murder Charges
As noted earlier, malice is required for you to be convicted for first degree murder. Thus, to prove you acted with malice in the murder, the prosecutor must prove a lack of mitigating circumstances. For example, mitigating circumstances that can reduce culpability are:
- Heat of passion under reasonable provocation
- Heat of passion induced by sudden combat
- Excessive force in self defense or defending another person
In the presence of such mitigating circumstances, a first degree murder charge may be reduced to second degree murder or similar charge.
Bail for Murder Charges in Massachusetts
In this state, defendants charged with major felonies such as rape or murder are often held without bail until they are brought to trial and convicted.
Legal Defenses to Murder Charges in Massachusetts
Murder charges are serious, but there are defenses to them in Massachusetts and other states:
- Mistaken identity: It is possible the wrong person was charged with the crime. If you assert it is a case of mistaken identity, you will need to present a credible alibi that proves you were somewhere else when the crime happened. The defense also may challenge evidence that shows you were at the scene; this can include challenging the testimony of a witness who identified you, as well as challenging forensic evidence.
- Justifiable homicide: Not every homicide is a crime. There are situations where killing can be justified. One of the most common is self defense, where you must show the killing was from a ‘reasonable’ use of force to resist fear of death or bodily harm. You cannot have instigated the situation that led to a threat of harm. Also, you can argue justifiable homicide in the defense of another person.
- Exercise of duty: Some killings by law enforcement and other public officers can qualify as justifiable homicide.
- Accident or misfortune: A killing that is committed in the course of doing something lawful is not murder. Some of these killings may be charged as manslaughter, but unless the act was due to a crime being committed or a result of criminal intentions, this would not be first or second degree murder.
- Insanity: If you can prove you were unable to understand that the act was wrong at the time, this may be a valid defense.
Massachusetts Statute of Limitations
There is no statute of limitations for a murder charge in the state of Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Murder Cases
- Rockport MA Man Charged With Four Murders -- A 22 year old man from Rockport will be arraigned next week on first degree murder charges in the murders of his mother, grandparents and the caretaker for the grandparents.
- MS-13 Gang Member Pleads Guilty to Massachusetts Murder -- A member of the street gang MS-13 has pleaded guilty to the 2015 killing of a teenager who was lured on a date before being shot.
- Arrest Made in Cold Case of Murdered MA Teen -- After 30 years of searching, an arrest was made recently in the murder of 15 year old Tracy Gilpin. The state police arrested 61 year old Michael Hand in North Carolina.
- State Code of Massachusetts. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIV/TitleI/Chapter265/Section1