The Charge: 2nd Degree Murder
On Thursday, April 13th, prosecutors filed a 2nd degree murder charge against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the killing of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. While many legal experts anticipated that Zimmerman would be charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter, the prosecution opted to pursue a charge that will require proof that Zimmerman intentionally shot Martin. Because the prosecution would find significant difficulty in proving premeditation, a charge of 1st degree murder would be inappropriate given the facts of the case.
Under Florida law, 2nd degree murder is the unlawful killing of a person when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual. The maximum sentence for second-degree murder in Florida is life in prison and the minimum penalty is 25 years. Had the prosecution chosen to proceed in filing a charge of manslaughter, they would not be required to show that Zimmerman committed the murder with specific intent, but rather a manslaughter conviction could include a killing that involves mistake or accident. Under Florida law, a manslaughter conviction would carry a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Contrastingly, New Jersey state law does not include a crime of 2nd degree murder. Rather, New Jersey Criminal Statute 2C:11-2 distinguishes between murder, aggravated manslaughter, and manslaughter. A person is guilty of criminal homicide if he “purposely, knowingly, recklessly causes the death of another human being.” Under the applicable portion of the statute, criminal homicide constitutes murder when: (1) the actor purposely causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death; or (2) the actor knowingly causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death. Under the applicable portion of the statute, criminal homicide constitutes aggravated manslaughter (a crime of the 1st degree) when: (1) the actor recklessly causes death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life; or (2) the actor causes the death of another person while fleeing. Lastly, under the applicable portion of the statute, criminal homicide constitutes manslaughter (a crime of the 2nd degree) when: (1) it is committed recklessly; or (2) a homicide which would otherwise be murder under section 2C:11-3 is committed in the heat of passion resulting from a reasonable provocation.
The 2nd degree murder charge under Florida law bears similarities to both a murder charge and an aggravated manslaughter charge under New Jersey. Most notably, a murder sentence in New Jersey is 30 years to life, similar to the 2nd degree murder sentence in Florida of 25 years to life. Moreover, neither Florida’s 2nd degree murder charge nor New Jersey’s murder charge require premeditation. New Jersey’s murder charge requires purpose or knowledge of serious bodily harm, which indicates a level of intent as similarly required under Florida’s 2nd degree murder statute.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s aggravated manslaughter statute requires recklessness under the circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, which is arguably similar to the “depraved mind” vocabulary under the Florida standard. A conviction of aggravated manslaughter under New Jersey law mandates a sentence between 10 – 30 years.
The prosecution in the case will be required to prove the charge of 2nd degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, Zimmerman will not be entitled to release on bail prior to his trial. The Florida judicial system has what is known as an Arthur hearing, which can take place weeks after the arrest, to determine whether he should be allowed to post bond. The case will almost certainly include a pretrial hearing to determine whether the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which grants broad protections to people who claim to have killed in self-defense, applies; if the judge finds that Mr. Zimmerman acted appropriately, the case will end there. If the judge decides that the protections of the law do not apply, the case will go forward.
Regardless of the state laws, a conviction on 2nd degree murder requires clear evidence and decisive legal guidance. An attorney must understand the legal principles underlying the various levels of homicide and make an informed decision in order to prevail at court. In filing a 2nd degree murder charge, the special prosecutor is likely attempting to provide for the public’s retributive desire for firm punishment. Moreover, the charge may indicate that the prosecution has proof indicating that Zimmerman was the instigator in the deadly altercation. It is also possible that by filing a 2nd degree murder charge, the prosecution is attempting to force a plea bargain at the level of manslaughter. A prosecutor considering the same case in New Jersey would need to carefully consider the facts in determining whether to file a murder charge or an aggravated manslaughter charge. Expertise in the state criminal code is essential when making a decision that could distinguish guilt from innocence and life imprisonment from freedom.
Timothy Farrow, of Dash Farrow, LLP, is an experienced criminal defense attorney and former Prosecutor who handles these offense and crimes, misdemeanors, and traffic offense of all levels. When you need experienced, focused, and responsive legal help, call Dash Farrow, LLP at 856-235-8300 or contact us online at www.dashfarrow.com. We serve individuals and businesses throughout Burlington and Camden County and all of South Jersey