Capital Offense?

Apologies in advance for not having the cites at hand (and to manny and Chronos if this devolves into a GD); this is from my memory of a front-page article in yesterday’s Houston Chronicle.

They ran a story on death row inmates and their lead story was that of a fellow whose attorneys don’t deny his cognizant participation in the commission of the crime that lead to shooting death of a police officer. Possibly our newest martyr. Anyway, apparently he and his fellows committed an armed robbery upon the scene of which happened an off-duty officer who was not in uniform. Said officer shifted into cop gear and attempted to arrest the errant folk. To paraphrase the words of the inmate (since I don’t have the article at hand to quote) ‘He didn’t ID himself as a police officer until a second before I shot him.’

The argument of the counsel representing the inmate contends that this should not have been tried as a capital case because he didn’t know it was a cop he was killing (never mind that, AFAIK, and IANAL, homocide committed in the course of a robbery is a capital offense in Texas - perhaps they’re arguing that the crime was committed during the post-robbery pursuit and should not be considered as part and parcel of the initiating event).

Ignoring for the moment the inmate’s incautious statement, I must wonder: is there a legal basis for acknowledging that, while the end results of one’s efforts was the commission of an X+ level crime, since the subject only intended to commit an X level crime and was unaware that conditions existed that made it an X+ level crime, said subject can only be considered guilty of the X level crime?

That’s not the way I’d thought that it worked.

In a way this reminds me of the old UL that if you had a fender-bender with a USPS truck you were guilty of interfering with the U.S. Mail (though not intentionally).

Don’t know a definitive answer to the main question, but I can verify that committing murder in the course of a robbery will indeed qualify a person for the needle here in Texas. And whether that murder occurred in the store or during the getaway is immaterial, since the getaway is necessarily part of the overall crime. I’m reminded of a felony-murder case I read in law school where the defendant robbed a store, then managed to accidentally run over somebody while driving away from the scene. His conviction for felony murder was upheld with no problem at all.

My best, somewhat-informed guess for the primary question is that the murderer’s knowledge of the victim’s status as a police officer will make no difference. I personally guarantee that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will hold that way. It also makes a certain amount of sense to me by analogy, in that the death penalty is also a possible sentence for child murder down here. Surely we’d execute a guy who kills a seven-year-old,* even though he thought the victim was eight and therefore not subject to the death penalty.

*I know the death penalty option is available for mudering a child, but don’t remember whether the critical age is seven or twelve or what.

There was a recent case in Houston where a fast food place [don’t remember the brand] was buglarized. The place caught fire suposedly an accident while cutting open the safe. The burglars left. Later firefighters were inside putting out the fire when the roof collapsed, killing some of the firefighters [2?]. The buglars were charged with murder even though they were nowhere around when the deaths occured. The deaths did result from their crime.

I remember that case, starfish, and that’s the way I thought it worked. So I was perplexed when reading about the above mentioned inmate’s contention that ignorance of his victim’s occupation somehow negated the capital status of his crime.

Dammit! This is what I get for posting off the top of my head. I just looked up the Texas capital murder statute, and what do I find but …

Tex. Pen. Code section 19.03.

Of course, the jury still would have had to find that the guy knew the victim was a cop–otherwise, he couldn’t have gotten the death penalty on those grounds. So the Court of Criminal Appeals will still affirm if there’s any evidence at all that the bad guy might have known the victim was a police officer.

Anyway, apologies for my unfounded speculation above.

Oh, and it’s a capital offense to murder “an individual under six years of age.”

The difference might be that the jury must unanimously agree on a theory for guilt. The lawyer’s point might be that the jury didn’t find that this guy committed murder during a robbery - they found that he killed a police officer. But if that finding is unsupported in the record by evidence, the verdict should be overturned.

In general, you cannot be convicted - or suffer an enhanced penalty - for circumstances that you didn’t know, or shouldn’t reasonably have known.

  • Rick

So he admits he knew the victim was a cop before he shot him? Time for our guy to start deciding whether he wants the i.v. in his left or right arm.

OK, folks, I am still confused (some might contend I’ll never get over that). Two attorneys have checked in and have noted:

1.) “In general, you cannot be convicted - or suffer an enhanced penalty - for circumstances that you didn’t know, or shouldn’t reasonably have known.” (Rick)

2.) “…the person murders a police officer or fireman who is acting in the lawful discharge of an official duty and who the person knows is a peace officer or fireman.” (minty green)

3.) “…I can verify that committing murder in the course of a robbery will indeed qualify a person for the needle here in Texas. And whether that murder occurred in the store or during the getaway is immaterial, since the getaway is necessarily part of the overall crime.” (minty green)

And starfish brought to mind a case that was widely-reported on here wherein some burglars started a fire that resulted in the deaths of two firefighters, for which the burglars were tried and convicted of capital murder (IIRC - starfish?).

So is this a case where our jailhouse martyr might escape punishment via double-jeopardy sanctions that prevent him from being tried for a different crime (homocide committed during the course of an armed robbery) than the one he was tried for (cop-killing) stemming from the same incident? If so, is that a prosecutor miscall?

And Rick, how do I reconcile your statement in 1.) above with the convictions of the burglars for the firefighters’ deaths? Do they have an appeal avenue here?

The above of course ignores the alleged miscreant’s statement that does indicate he was aware, if only for a second, of his victim’s occupation prior to the murder. I would guess that such a statement made to a newspaper reporter was not something allowed to enter the trial record.

No and no. It’s perfectly possible for a person to be sentenced to death based on two different grounds (cop killing and felony murder in this case). One crime, one sentence, two legal grounds, no double jeopardy.

Can’t speak for Rick, but it’s pefectly foreseeable that if you start a fire, firemen could be injured or killed. That said, the concept of felony murder has been roundly criticized, and no longer exists in many states. But as you know, this is Texas, where they have an automatic right to appeal any death sentence to a panel of judges that got elected because they’re “tough on crime.”

Of course a post-trial statement could not have been considered by the jury originally, so it’s not part of the record on appeal. However, it would be an exceptionally stupid defendant who publicly, and for the first time, proclaimed his guilt while seeking a new trial, since that statement would certainly be admissible in the new trial that he seeks.

BTW, he is no longer an “alleged” miscreant. He’s a convicted murderer. For purposes of the appeals process, the courts presume that the facts of the case are as the jury found them.

Hey Beatle,

In Texas there a number of circumstances that elevate First Degree Murder to Capital Murder. Aside from the ones already mentioned here…

  1. Murder of a Peace Officer

  2. Murder of a Child (6 years old or under, IIRC)
    there are also:

  3. Murder occurring during the commission of another felony (i.e. Robbery, which I believe would be the statute used in the case mentioned in the OP)

  4. Murder for hire

  5. Multiple murders
    and I’m sure many more. Actually #3 is the reason most convicts in Texas do get sent to Death Row, as practically every murder has some additional felony attached to it, like Using a Firearm in the Commission of a Felony. Kind of a Catch-22, but fuck 'em. Shouldn’t be killing people. It would bother me if the guys who burned down the McDonald’s got the death penalty, however. That is kind of stretching the law, I think.

Well, there are examples where you have to know you are committing a crime. Let’s see if I can manufacture something that fits the example above. (And, just in case, IANAL)

25 year old man is in a sexual relationship with a girl he believes to be 17 years old. This is what she has told him, this is what her friends have told him. This is what her driver’s license says. This man is knowingly and willfully committing statutory rape.

Turns out the girl is a very mature (and very prepared) 12 years old.

Could you charge him with child molestation? He had no idea he was committing that charge, would never have considered committing that crime, and is disgusted by what he now knows. Of which crime is he guilty?

I don’t know the answer, I am just trying to find another situation like what you describe above.

Statutory rape is, of course, regulated by the laws of the various states, obfusciatrist, so Your Laws May Vary. But the majority position is that a person can be convicted of statutory rape even if there was a perfectly reasonable belief that the victim was over the age of consent.

And I’m positive that Origato’s firearms example is incorrect, but I’ll have to check it out later.

Here’s the actual statutory language, Origato, again taken from section 19.03:

So “using a firearm in the commission of a felony” won’t get you to capital murder. And obviously, the requirement of “intentionally” excludes the burglars who started that fire that killed the two firefighters. However, there is also:

So the fire-starting burglars could still qualify for capital murder. You get to that result by looking at the general murder statute of section 19.02(b), as the capital murder statute directs:

So starting a fire during the commission of felony burglary is murder when it results in the deaths of the firemen, and it’s capital murder because the murder was of more than one person, per 19.03(a)(7).

Y’all still with me? :wink:

If you want to look at these statutes yourself, here is Chapter 19 of the Texas Penal Code.

Felony murder is confusing, as mentioned above. But I hope that subsequent postings have eased beatle’s confusion a bit.

Note that when I said, “In general, you cannot be convicted - or suffer an enhanced penalty - for circumstances that you didn’t know, or shouldn’t reasonably have known,” that doesn’t contradict the idea behind the felony murder rule. If you walk into a store armed with a shotgun, you know - or should know - that a death might result. The fact that you had no intent to kill is irrelevant; this eliminates the defense of “the gun went off by accident.”

On the other hand, if a murder somehow results during the commission of tax evasion, it’s not reasonably foreseeable - and the felony murder rule doesn’t apply. This is why, as minty green suggests with his post of Texas law, not all felonies, by a long shot, are sufficient predicate to “felony murder.” In Virginia, similarly, and off the top of my head, the predicate felonies are robbery, burglary, arson, rape, forcible sodomy, or kidnapping.

Now let us turn to obfusciatrist’s “very willing and prepared” 12-year-old.

The law tends to frown on “strict liability” for crimes - as I said, you generally need to show a specific mes rea, a guilty mind, for a crime. This is called a scienter requirement, and is built into many crimes by the legislature. Even when it’s not specifically noted as an element, courts have interpreted a Due Process requirement that laws include a scienter element.

However, sexual contact with minors is an area of the law that’s not yet settled. As was correctly noted, sexual contact with a twelve-year-old does not permit a mistake-of-fact defense, and the state of mind of the actor is not relvant to the charge. In general, these kinds of laws have been upheld.

My impression is that courts have depended more on prosecutorial discretion to avoid miscarriages of justice in these situations. I also think that what was a valid assumption even two generations ago is not on as solid ground today. While once it might have been absurd to think an 11 or 12 year-old could could possibly have been mistaken for 18, today it is - at least in my view - more likely. (See for heated discussions surrounding this possibility.

In any event, the short answer is for statutory rape-type cases, courts have been more willing to ignore a scienter requirement, but the law is far from settled.

  • Rick

Thanks bricker. Like I said, I didn’t know the answer. I was just trying to come up with a hypothetical that matched the OP’s question.

If I can hijack a little bit, are there situations where a person thinks they are committing a crime but are not, in actuality; and yet can be convicted of the crime they thought they were committing?

For example, if I think I am buying cocaine but it turns out I was being scammed and it is actually powdered sugar. A further bad turn of events has the DEA raiding the sale. Are there any drug charges here?

(Don’t limit my question to drugs, that is just the example I could think of)

Yes, Ob, it can happen. Let’s say I shoot a man lying in his bed. I believe that he is asleep. In truth, he died in his sleep hours earlier, which an autopsy would reveal. I am not guilty of murder, but I am guilty of attempted murder, because I had the requisite “criminal intent”.

Doesn’t happen all that often, but it can indeed happen.