Fatal automobile accidents are tragic, but ordinarily the word we focus on is “accident.” If the legal system becomes engaged after such an incident, it is often in the form of a civil lawsuit based on accusations of negligence and wrongful death.
Sometimes the circumstances of a fatal vehicle collision can lead to criminal charges, but even then the operative concern is the accidental nature of the death: the defendant will frequently face charges of negligent homicide or vehicular manslaughter. So how do we approach a situation in which a prosecuting attorney charges a defendant with murder after an accident? That is the question that a recent two-car collision in Oklahoma City has raised.
The facts of the incident involved a man who drove in the wrong direction on a turnpike prior to colliding with another vehicle, killing one of its three occupants and injuring the other two. He has been charged with a battery of crimes, including causing an accident that resulted in great bodily injury, leaving an accident scene, and possession of an illegal drug (methamphetamine). But most significantly, he also faces charges of second-degree and possibly first-degree murder.
So exactly how does a murder charge result from an accident?
Under Oklahoma law, a person can be charged with second-degree murder under either of two circumstances: when he commits an act that is imminently dangerous to another person while demonstrating a “depraved mind” without regard to human life. Or, someone who is engaged in a felony, during the commission of which another person is killed, can also be charged with murder in the second degree.
In the case of the wrong-way driver, it is not clear which of the two bases above form the prosecution’s foundation for a second-degree murder charge.
For the prosecution to establish its alternative theory of first-degree murder, in most cases the intent of the defendant – “malice aforethought” – to cause unlawfully cause death needs to be established. This would ordinarily preclude a first-degree murder charge arising from accidental circumstances. But the applicable Oklahoma law includes other ways to bring such a charge even in the absence of malice, such as a death that occurs when the defendant was attempting to elude a police officer or to escape custody or is trafficking in illegal drugs. In addition, first-degree murder can also be the result of using unreasonable force that injures a child, although such behavior must be malicious or willful.
From the perspective of a criminal defense attorney, the takeaway from this tragic episode is that prosecutors can be creative in interpreting criminal law statutes to file charges against defendants. An accidental death does not necessarily preclude a charge of murder, even when the acts leading to the death are not intentional. And although in the story at hand there is no mention of an alternative charge of negligent homicide, it is frequently the case that a prosecuting attorney will stack alternative charges or ask for a lesser included charge so that if the jury fails to find sufficient cause for a murder conviction it can still apply a lesser charge.
These legal principles will also apply to the recent tragic accident that caused the life of a local well known television sportscaster.
Hunsucker Legal Group