NJ Homicide Law: Introduction
New Jersey defines three categories of criminal homicide. They are murder, manslaughter, and death by auto. Each of these categories contains subcategories. The subcategory for a particular matter will affect some aspect of the sentence if the person is convicted. This page discusses all three categories, including their subcategories. This page additionally discusses the related topic of aiding suicide.
Not surprisingly, the law of homicide (like many laws) is complicated and convoluted. This page can sensitize visitors to the different categories and subcategories. Detailed analyses beyond that, however, would require a more traditional conference with one of the Criminal Lawyers in New Jersey™.
NJ Homicide Law: Murder
The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice provision that defines murder is N.J.S. 2C:11-3. Murder falls into any of three separate types. The first is when the actor purposely causes death, or serious bodily injury resulting in death. The second is when the actor knowingly causes death, or serious bodily injury resultng in death. Neither of these two types require “malice aforethought.” Unlike law in some jurisdictions, and unlike New Jersey law before adoption of its Code of Criminal Justice, a person can now be convicted of murder in New Jersey on the basis of a pure spur-of-the-moment action.
The third type of murder in New Jersey is called “felony murder.” Felony murder occurs when one person causes the death of another during the commission, or attempted commission, of any of what are called “predicate crimes.” Those predicate crimes are robbery, sexual assault, arson, burglary, kidnapping, carjacking, criminal escape, and terrorism. The death that results may have been completely unintended. And the person that caused the death need not have been the person committing (or attempting to commit) the crime. Thus, for example, if a security guard shoots at a robber, but hits and kills, instead, a bystander, the robber can be convicted of felony murder. Same result if stress of the event causes a bystander to collapse and die of a heart attack. The robber cannot, however, be convicted of felony murder on the basis that the person who dies was one of the participants in the robbery.
Persons convicted of murder in New Jersey must serve a minimum of thirty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Never less. The maximum term is life. Some situations will require a life sentence without parole. These situations include the victim being a law enforcement officer murdered during the performance of his duty, or the victim being under the age of fourteen and the act occurring during commission of a sexual assault or criminal sexual contact. Our legislature has also defined a complex combination of factors that will require life without possibility of parole to be served in a maximum security prison. New Jersey has abolished the death penalty.
NJ Homicide Law: Manslaughter
Introduction to New Jersey Manslaughter
The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice provision that defines manslaughter is N.J.S. 2C:11-4. Manslaughter can be either aggravated manslaughter or non-aggravated manslaughter. Non-aggravated manslaughter is typically referred to as just “manslaughter.” Both manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter, in turn, each arise in either of two situations.
New Jersey Aggravated Manslaughter
Aggravated manslaughter comes in two flavors. The first is when the actor recklessly causes death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. The second is when the actor causes the death of another while fleeing from or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer. The death of a passenger in the car, however, will not trigger this second form of aggravated manslaughter. Both forms of aggravated manslaughter are first degree crimes. Despite that, and as explained below, the maximum period of imprisonment for the first form is greater.
New Jersey Non-aggravated Manslaughter
The first situation that gives rise to manslaughter is recklessly causing death. “Reckless,” as used in the context of manslaughter, means consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that death will result from given conduct. Absent from this first form of manslaughter is the factor of “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life,” present in aggravated manslaughter.
The second way to commit non-aggravated manslaughter is to cause death under circumstances that, but for being committed in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation, would otherwise be murder. Thus it is only in the context of what would otherwise be murder that this passion or provocation defense can be considered. It cannot be used to reduce an aggravated manslaughter charge. This is the only type of manslaughter, whether it be aggravated or non-aggravated, that is voluntary.
In this second situation, four elements of the provocation and reaction are needed.
- The provocation must have been reasonably sufficient;
- There must not have been a “cooling-off” period between the provocation and the reaction;
- The person must have actually felt provoked; and
- The person must not have actually cooled-off between the provocation and the reaction.
The first two elements are objective. They use the standard of how an ordinary person would have behaved in the situation. The second two elements are much more subjective. A person's actual behavior in a situation is what we consider. If a person was not actually provoked by someone else's actions, even though most people would have been, the provocation is insufficient. If an ordinary person would not have had time to cool down, but the defendant in fact did cool down, then the requirements for a voluntary manslaughter conviction are not satisfied, and the charge remains murder.
When a person's conduct satisfies either of the two situations just described, that conduct is non-aggravated manslaughter. New Jersey law makes non-aggravated manslaughter a second degree crime.
New Jersey Manslaughter: Differences and Distinctions
The distinction between recklessly causing death - which is non-aggravated manslaughter - and recklessly causing death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life - which is aggravated manslaughter - is made by a possibility versus probability analysis. If the risk of death due to given conduct is merely possible, meaning death might reasonably occur, there is a greater likelihood that the conduct will be found to constitute non-aggravated manslaughter. If, on the other hand, the risk of death is probable, meaning death is more likely than not to occur, the conduct more heavily leans towards aggravated manslaughter. The difference in the recklessness of conduct typically gives rise to a difference in likeliness of fatal repercussions.
A New Jersey case that illustrates this distinction is State v. O'Carroll, 385 N.J. Super. 211 (App. Div.), certif. den. 188 N.J. 409 (2006). The O'Carroll situation began with a verbal argument between Brenden O'Carroll and his girlfriend. It escalated. The girlfriend approached O'Carroll with a knife. He then strangled her to death with a telephone cord. He contended that he was only trying to get girlfriend to drop her knife, not to kill her.
Trial proofs showed that the time between the loss of consciousness from strangulation and death from strangulation is about ten minutes. This ten minutes is the time period in which O'Carroll contended he recklessly disregarded the fatal consequences of his actions. He did not start choking her to kill her, but simply to make her drop the knife. Thus, he argued, while his actions showed a clear disregard for the substantial and unjustifiable risks of prolonged choking, they were reckless rather than intentional.
It was O'Carroll's position that he was guilty of passion/provocation voluntary manslaughter, rather than murder. The heated argument he and his girlfriend were having, as well as the fact that she approached him with a knife, demonstrated the intensity of the situation. The strangulation was simply a reasonable result of serious provocation.
His argument failed and the jury found him gulity of first-degree murder. O'Carroll appealed. He argued on appeal that the court should have been allowed to consider reckless manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter charges. In his first trial, the only optins that the judge allowed the jury to consider were muder, voluntary provocation manslaughter, or not guilty at all. O'Carroll contended that a charge of non-aggravated reckless manslaughter or aggravated manslaughter would have been appropriate.
The court agreed. While O'Carroll's conduct resulting in the death of his girlfriend was unjustifiably risky, he never intended to kill her. Therefore his actions were not murderous. O's murder conviction was reversed. The State put him on trial again. At his retrial, the jury found O'Carroll guilty of aggravated manslaughter.
New Jersey Manslaughter: Grading and Penalties
As indicated above, non-aggravated manslaughter, whether reckless or due to provocation, is a second-degree crime. The normal range of imprisonment for a second degree crime is five to ten years, and fines up to $15,000.00. Aggravated manslaughter is a first-degree crime. When committed recklessly, it has a normal range of imprisonment of ten to thirty years. When committed while eluding law enforcement, the normal range of imprisonment is ten to twenty years. First-degree crimes also carry fines up to $200,000.00.
Manslaughter convictions are subject to the “No Early Release Act.” Persons subject to the No Early Release Act are required to serve at least eighty-five percent of their term before becoming eligible for release on parole.
NJ Homicide Law: Vehicular Homicide
The final form of homicide defined in New Jersey law is vehicular homicide. The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice provision that defines death by vehicular homicide is N.J.S. 2C:11-5. In the words of the statute itself, “Criminal homicide consitutes vehicular homicide when it is caused by driving a vehicle or vessel recklessly.” Note, therefore, that the “vehicle” involved in vehicular homicide can be a motorcycle or boat--it need not be a car. Vehicular homicide is normally a second degree crime. It becomes a first degree crime, however, if the driver was driving while intoxicated and the event occurred on or within one thousand feet of school property, or in a school crossing.
“Recklessly” under the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice has a very specific and technical meaning. More particularly, N.J.S. 2C:2-2b(3) defines recklessly as follows:
|A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and purpose of the actor's conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation.|
N.J.S. 2C:11-5 then goes on, however, to supplement the Code definition of recklessly with specific examples of behavior from which recklessness might be inferred. Those examples include falling asleep after twenty-four consecutive hours without sleep; driving while intoxicated; and operating a hand-held cell phone.
Persons convicted of vehicular homicide can eventually become eligible to have their criminal records expunged. Vehicular homicide convictions are the only form of homicide convictions that can be expunged under present New Jersey expungement law.
NJ Homicide Law: Aiding Suicide
Attempted suicide is no longer a criminal offense in New Jersey. However, New Jersey law specifies that it is illegal to purposely aid another to commit suicide. The specific statute is N.J.S. 2C:11-6. If a suicide actually results, purposely aiding in its commission is a second degree crime. If the suicide is not consummated, the aiding is a fourth degree crime.
In 2019, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill allowing physician-assisted suicides for terminally ill patients. Governor Murphy signed it into law on April 12. It became effective on August 1. In enacting its physician-assisted suicide law, New Jersey joined California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
Shortly after New Jersey's law took effect, Dr. Yosef Glassman sought and obtained a preliminary injunction barring the practice. Dr. Glassman convinced Mercer County Superior Court Judge Paul Innes to issue the injunction. The rationale for its issuance is that the law violates religious freedom protections in the United States Constitution, as well as common law barring suicide.
The injunction was in effect for only a few days before the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed it on August 27. Thus, for the moment, physician-assisted suicides can legally continue in New Jersey. The case is not over, however. New Jersey courts have yet to issue a definitive ruling on whether the law violates the New Jersey Constitution.
Assisting a patient in exercising his right to terminate life support, or to refuse medical treatment, does not constitute aiding suicide. Be aware, however, that the line separating legal action from illegal is thin. It is a line that is very easy to cross.
NJ Homicide Law: Drug Deaths
If B obtains illicit drugs from A, and if B dies from those illicitly obtained drugs, then A can be prosecuted on account of B's death. The crime in question is called drug-induced deaths. It is often referred to as just “drug deaths”.
Drug deaths is another form of homicide. It is considered a “strict liability” crime. Strict liability means that if B (in this example) dies on account of the illicit drugs that A provided, then A can be convicted. The fact that A never intended that the death happen is irrelevant. The fact that A had no reason to believe that the drugs would cause B's death is similarly irrelevant. Only relevant is that A provided the drugs and B died from those drugs.
This is a short overview of drug deaths. Criminal Lawyers in New Jersey™ provides much more detailed information on another page on this site.
NJ Homicide Law: Criminal Lawyers in New Jersey™
Homicides, whether murder, any form of manslaughter, or even vehicular homicide, are among the most serious of offenses defined in New Jersey's Code of Criminal Justice. Criminal Lawyers in New Jersey™ Allan Marain and Norman Epting, Jr. have handled and tried numerous homicide cases. Both are available to discuss homicide charges against you or someone close to you.