Murder and Manslaughter Charges in North Carolina

If you are charged with murder in North Carolina, you could face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty by lethal injection.  Everything is on the line.  One of the most important decisions you can make is to ensure that you have an experienced criminal trial attorney in your corner to evaluate the evidence, direct independent investigations, and either negotiate a reduction of the charge or fight the case at trial.  Even if you committed the act itself, there may be defenses to the charge of murder.

Categories of Murder Charges in North Carolina

  • First Degree Murder: First Degree Murder is generally considered to be premeditated killing.
    • The law itself is more complicated.  Under NCGS § 14-17(a), First Degree Murder is defined as a murder which involved some planning (even if very brief), and it must have either been done deliberately, or during the commission or attempted commission of another felony with the use of a deadly weapon.
    • The complete text of the First Degree Murder statute reads as follows:
      • (a)        A murder which shall be perpetrated by means of a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon of mass destruction as defined in G.S. 14-288.21, poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or which shall be committed in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of any arson, rape or a sex offense, robbery, kidnapping, burglary, or other felony committed or attempted with the use of a deadly weapon shall be deemed to be murder in the first degree, a Class A felony, and any person who commits such murder shall be punished with death or imprisonment in the State’s prison for life without parole as the court shall determine pursuant to G.S. 15A-2000, except that any such person who was under 18 years of age at the time of the murder shall be punished in accordance with Part 2A of Article 81B of Chapter 15A of the General Statutes.
  • Second Degree Murder: Second Degree murder does not require proof of premeditation, but instead requires proof of reckless disregard for human life in one’s actions, where those actions lead to the killing of another person.
    • The complete text of the Second Degree Murder charge reads as follows, under NCGS § 14-17(b):
      • (b)        A murder other than described in subsection (a) or (a1) of this section or in G.S. 14-23.2 shall be deemed second degree murder. Any person who commits second degree murder shall be punished as a Class B1 felon, except that a person who commits second degree murder shall be punished as a Class B2 felon in either of the following circumstances:

        (1)        The malice necessary to prove second degree murder is based on an inherently dangerous act or omission, done in such a reckless and wanton manner as to manifest a mind utterly without regard for human life and social duty and deliberately bent on mischief.

        (2)        The murder is one that was proximately caused by the unlawful distribution of any opium, opiate, or opioid; any synthetic or natural salt, compound, derivative, or preparation of opium, or opiate, or opioid; cocaine or other substance described in G.S. 90-90(1)d.; methamphetamine; or a depressant described in G.S. 90-92(a)(1), and the ingestion of such substance caused the death of the user.

Categories of Manslaughter Charges in North Carolina

The key difference between killings classified as murder and those classified as manslaughter is that manslaughter charges do not require proof of malicious intent.  There are two categories of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary.

  • Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary Manslaughter is generally considered to involve the unlawful killing of a person by an intentional act.
    • Voluntary Manslaughter is not defined by statute in North Carolina, but instead derives from the common law, or judicial precedent.  The North Carolina Supreme Court defined voluntary manslaughter as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice and without premeditation and deliberation” in State v. Norris, 303 N.C. 526, 529 (1981).
    • To secure a conviction for voluntary manslaughter, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the defendant killed the victim by committing an intentional and unlawful act that is a felony or that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm; and (2) the defendant’s act was the proximate cause of the victim’s death. See State v. Ray, 299 N.C. 151, 158 (1980); State v. Coleman, 254 N.C. App. 497, 501 (2017).
    • Voluntary manslaughter includes — but is not limited to — two specific types of unlawful killings: (1) killing a person in sudden anger or in the heat of passion (which is deemed to negate the malice requirement in Second Degree Murder), and (2) a killing for which the defendant has an imperfect right to self-defense.  An “imperfect” right to self-defense generally means that the defendant either was the aggressor or had a right to self-defense but the force used was excessive under the circumstances. See State v. Hairston, 269 N.C. App. 52, 57 (2019).
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary Manslaughter involves the unlawful killing of a person 1) without malice, 2) without premeditation and deliberation, and 3) without the intent to kill or inflict serious bodily injury.
    • Looking to the North Carolina jury instruction on Involuntary Manslaughter, the State would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant 1) unlawfully or in a criminally negligent way, and 2) that the defendant’s act was the proximate cause of the death.
  • Vehicular Manslaughter: Vehicular Manslaughter involves the killing of another person with a vehicle as a result of negligence or recklessness.

Penalties for Murder and Manslaughter Charges

The penalties a defendant may face for murder or manslaughter charges can vary greatly depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, and the specific nature of the conviction following either jury verdict or guilty plea.

  • First Degree Murder: First Degree Murder is a Class A felony, the highest level crime in North Carolina.  A Class A felony is punishable by either life in prison without parole, or death by lethal injection.
  • Second Degree Murder: Second Degree Murder is classified as either a Class B1 felony with a minimum prison sentence of 192 months to life in prison, or Class B2 felony with a minimum sentence of 125 months in prison.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary Manslaughter is a Class D felony with a minimum sentence of 51 months in prison.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary Manslaughter is a Class F felony with a minimum sentence of 13 months in prison.
  • Vehicular Manslaughter: Vehicular Manslaughter is also a Class F felony with a minimum sentence of 13 months in prison.

Defenses to Murder

  • Self Defense: Self Defense is a complete defense to First or Second Degree Murder if the defendant can establish that: 1) he or she believed it was necessary to use deadly force against the deceased in order to save the defendant from death or great bodily harm, and 2) the circumstances as they appeared to the defendant at the time were sufficient to create such a belief in the mind of a person of
    “ordinary firmness.”  In other words, whether the circumstances were sufficient to render the defendant’s actions reasonable.

    • In determining the “reasonableness” of the defendant’s belief, a jury will be instructed to consider the circumstances as they find them to have existed from the evidence, including factors such as: the size, age and strength of the defendant as compared to the victim; the fierceness of the assault, if any, upon the defendant; whether the victim had a weapon in the victim’s possession; and the reputation, if any, of the victim for danger and violence.
  • Defense of Others: Defense of Others is also a complete defense to First or Second Degree Murder if the defendant can establish that he or she reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily injury to another person.
    • In order to be eligible for this defense, it must also be true that the person being defended would have been entitled to use deadly force in self-defense.
  • Defense of Habitation: Defense of Habitation is also a complete defense to First or Second Degree Murder if the defendant can establish that he or she used deadly force in order to prevent a forcible entry by an intruder into the defendant’s home (including a motor home), if the defendant reasonably believed that 1) the intruder would kill someone or inflict serious bodily injury on someone in the home, or commit a felony therein, and 2) that the amount of force used was necessary to prevent the entry into the home.

Lesser-Included Offenses to Murder

If you are facing a trial for Murder, it becomes an important question to determine under what circumstances a jury may be instructed to consider “lesser-included offenses.”  Under North Carolina law, Second Degree Murder, Voluntary Manslaughter, and Involuntary Manslaughter are all lesser-included offenses to First Degree Murder — which means that the elements that the state must prove in the lesser offenses are subsets of the elements of First Degree Murder.

In some cases, Second Degree Murder and Voluntary and/or Involuntary Manslaughter may be provided as lesser-included offenses for a jury’s consideration in First Degree Murder trial, but the presiding judge must find that there is evidence to support the lesser-included offense in order to present the jury with the option to convict the defendant on a lesser charge.  If the lesser-included offenses are not presented to the jury in a First Degree Murder trial, that means that the jury will only return a verdict of guilty or not guilty of First Degree Murder.  In other words, it’s all or nothing.

From the North Carolina Supreme Court: An instruction on a lesser-included offense must be given only if the evidence would permit the jury rationally to find defendant guilty of the lesser offense and to acquit him of the greater. State v. Millsaps, 356 N.C. 556 (2002).  The North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that in a case involving an unlawful killing with a firearm, an instruction for the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter would require evidence of “‘the absence of intent to discharge the weapon.’” State v. Coleman, 254 N.C. App. 497 (2017) (quoting State v. Robbins, 309 N.C. 771, 779 (1983).  This is critically important in a gun-related Murder trial — the lesser-included offense of Involuntary Manslaughter will only be provided where the actual discharge of the weapon was itself unintentional.  Voluntary Manslaughter, on the other hand, may be provided to the jury as a lesser-included offense where the discharge of the firearm itself was intentional, but there is evidence on which the jury could rely to find the defendant guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter but not guilty of First or Second Degree Murder.

Call Our Office for a Free, Confidential Consultation

Call our office to speak with our experienced criminal defense lawyers if you or a loved one have been charged with murder in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, or surrounding counties in North Carolina. Contact us today for a free, confidential consultation and case evaluation at (919) 899-9404.