From the criminal lawyers case files: Defining murder

Defining murder – how do we go about it? Earlier this week, I appeared in court. I represented one of two 19-year-old boys charged with the murder of a 49-year-old man. The time and place of the event was at Springfield Lakes on 19 October 2019. I have had many people ask me about this matter. As the matter is still progressing through the courts, I can’t go into detail.

However, I can provide a brief overview of the facts as they have been reported in various newspapers and TV news bulletins. The purpose of this article is also to provide an explanation as to what exactly the charge of murder means. And what must be proven in order for a person to be convicted of this offence? In other words, what does it mean to be murdered in the legal sense?

Looking at the facts in defining murder

Police allege the pair, Kynan Vital, 19, and Ethan McPherson, 19, broke into a Springfield Lakes home on Saturday night. It is claimed that they went on to punch Mr Vital’s ex-girlfriend Julia Murphy in the face. Police said they took her phone and drove off. However, the pair were pursued by Ms Murphy’s father David, 49. David caught up with them and confronted them on the side of the road.

An argument broke out, before one of the teens allegedly struck Mr Murphy on the head with a firearm, causing him to fall to the ground and lose consciousness. Another 20-year-old man, who had been driving in the silver sedan with Mr Murphy, tried to resuscitate him on the roadside. The teens assaulted him before fleeing the scene, police claim. Mr Murphy was found dead a short time later.

Defining murder –  what are the typical scenarios?

The legal definition of murder in Queensland is the unlawful killing of another with intent. The emphasis is on ‘intent’.  What that means is that in order for a person to be convicted of the offence they must have killed another person. But they must have had the intention to do so.

When people hear the term ‘murder’ they usually think of how killing is portrayed in the movies or television. That is, one person killing another person completely unknown to them. For example, one person might stab to death a stranger in a dark alley. Or one person might break into another person’s home and then beat them to death with a baseball bat. Whilst these instances fit within the definition of murder, the reality is that they are far from being the ‘usual’ circumstances surrounding a murder.

The statistics in defining murder

In defining murder, statistics show that murders almost always involve people who are known to each other. They also show that murders involving strangers are extremely rare. Murders are typically ‘crimes of passion’. This means that the murder was committed because of a sudden strong impulse, such as rage. This is opposed to a planned and premeditated attack.

In these types of murders, there is almost always a pre-existing relationship between the murderer and the victim. This is established well before the murder was committed. Typical examples are a previous domestic relationship (such as husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend), a familial relationship (such as siblings or children) or a business relationship (such as business partners).  In these types of matters, when something goes wrong, e.g. a divorce, the discovery of infidelity, the stealing by one business partner from the other etc. the person committing the murder isn’t able to control themselves and ‘explodes’.

What if there was a killing without the intention to kill?

In Queensland, we have a less serious offence known as ‘manslaughter’.  It arises when a person unlawfully kills another under circumstances that do not constitute murder. The simplest example is if one person kills another but the circumstances are such that there is no evidence of any intention to have killed that person. This is different from defining murder.

The nature of manslaughter

Prior to 2014, it was very common for the charge of murder to be brought against a person who punched another person, causing the victim to fall on the ground, hit their head and then die as a result of hitting their head (and not the punch). Almost invariably, however, the charge of murder would be downgraded to manslaughter prior to trial. Or if the prosecutor did not downgrade the charge, the jury would only find the defendant guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

That’s because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove that the offender, with one punch, intended to kill the other person. As a result of these cases, a new offence called ‘unlawful striking causing death’ was introduced to cover this exact scenario. It has also addressed the gap that appeared to have existed in the law in defining murder and defining manslaughter.

The penalty for murder

Now that we have reached a legal standpoint in defining murder, we can look at the penalties imposed. The offence of murder is the most serious offence in the Queensland criminal justice system. This is as well as most, if not all, other legal systems in the world. This is obviously because it’s hard to imagine a more serious crime than intentionally ending the life of another human being.

In Queensland, the maximum penalty for murder is life imprisonment. There are other offences which also carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. These include manslaughter or unlawful striking causing death. But murder is the only offence for which this penalty is mandatory. This means that the sentencing judge is not able to impose anything other than life imprisonment. Contrast this with them being allowed the discretion to impose lesser sentences for the other offences.

What does life imprisonment equal?

Life imprisonment doesn’t mean that the person will remain in prison until the day that they die. In Queensland, if a person is convicted of murder they are eligible to apply for release on parole after they have remained in prison for 20 years. This period was 15 years prior to 2018.

I hope this post has assisted you in reaching a legal understanding of defining murder. In my next article, I will discuss mandatory sentencing, that is where the parliament imposes sentences that must be handed down, effectively removing the power of a judge to exercise their discretion and the problems associated with it.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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