Homicide cases can be one of the most challenging cases to take as a defense attorney. The stakes cannot be higher. An individual’s freedom hangs in the balance, and it is up to you to defend it.
Usually, the prosecution assigns their most thorough and/ or tough minded prosecutors in their office. Due to the seriousness of the crime, homicide cases typically receive a substantial amount of resources from the state. Many of these cases often extend well outside the courtroom and into the media. If your case has the media’s attention, it can be “tried in the public court of opinion.”
All of this combined can make murder cases feel very daunting, even for veteran defense attorneys.
It’s for this reason that a lot of new defense attorneys shy away from taking murder cases, at least in the first few years of practice. However, successfully defending homicide cases can help you build your expertise and grow your practice. Homicide might not ultimately be your “cup of tea,” but for criminal defense attorneys, experience defending cases in that arena can help make you a better lawyer in all of your chosen areas of focus.
Below, I’ll detail some considerations for taking on your first homicide case.
Don’t be intimidated
It’s easier said than done, but you cannot allow yourself to be intimidated by the prosecutor. In the end, homicides are decided just like any other defense case: A jury might eventually be asked to weigh the evidence against your client. Everything else that happens is noise.
Prosecutors, the media and other actors will try to capitalize on this noise as the case develops to try to throw you off your game and gain concessions from you. Be ready for it, stay focused and tune it out.
Pay attention to your mental health as well. This will not only help you in your homicide case, but also throughout your career in law. Attorneys are asked to move mountains, handle immense pressure, and remain poised and confident the entire time. Understanding when you’re pushing yourself too far is important. Finding stress releases you can turn to, throughout your career will pay dividends down the line. Take care of yourself.
Work with the facts
This tip is closely related to the first. Don’t allow the bluster and emotional reaction around the case to impact your work as the defense attorney.
Homicide cases can be scandalous. They might get media attention, which can turn public opinion against your client. Even if they don’t get media attention, the simple facts around the case may cause many prospective jurors to look negatively on your client. People are generally deferential to authority, and while it’s something to keep in mind when structuring your statements to the jury, it shouldn’t mean anything when building your case.
Stay focused on facts and hard evidence when defending your case. Treat your preparation and examination of the evidence in this case, just like you did in any other matter you have defended previously. Along those same lines, stay diligent and keep opposing attorneys, witnesses and jurors focused on the facts of the case and nothing else. Treat
Prosecutors might try to sway jurors by focusing on salacious details or certain elements that jurors might find objectionable. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Use your authority in the courtroom to keep the focus on the facts.
Look for evidence that demonstrates the defendant’s frame of mind
You might find yourself defending a case where there is no doubt that the defendant’s actions were responsible for the victim’s death, so a dismissal or acquittal is virtually impossible.
While it might not be possible to avoid jail time, according to Robert M. Helfend, you can still score a significant win for your client if you can argue a murder case down to voluntary (or involuntary) manslaughter. Murder in California is punishable by 25-years-to-life (or more, depending on the facts of the case), but voluntary manslaughter carries a max sentence of 11 years. (For involuntary manslaughter it is 4 years.)
This is a great opportunity for you. The state’s evidence for malice aforethought or wanton disregard for human life is sometimes flimsy at best. Focus on the evidence that demonstrates the defendant’s mental state at the time of the homicide. Was the defendant suddenly provoked, or did they feel the need to defend themselves?
The use of expert witnesses can be a benefit to your case. For instance, should state of mind at the time of the offense become an issue, a psychological professional who can examine your client and his possible psychological history can be beneficial. If your client cannot afford such expertise, you are encouraged to file a motion with the court to have your expert of choice appointed at the expense of the state.
Even if the chips are fully stacked against your client, focusing on the defendant’s frame of mind can win sympathy with the jury and win your client at least a decade or more of freedom. Normally, the prosecution does not want a result which ends with an acquittal or a hung jury. They may plea bargain a charge of murder down to manslaughter, once you present them with your evidence of mental state.
Get help when you need it
Nobody gets through life by themselves, and your first murder case is an excellent opportunity to lean on the expertise of more seasoned mentors and attorneys in your network. It’s time to push yourself, expand your boundaries and grow.
Reach out to your mentors when you have questions or need help. If you know someone who is an expert in certain types of cases? Enlist them to help review the evidence of your case. It could provide insight that you wouldn’t have gained otherwise.
It can be tempting to try to do it all yourself, and it’s very enticing to be the hero. The reality is, at the end of the day, two brains are better than one, and you are working for the best possible outcome for your client.
Working together with colleagues can help reveal useful details when building your case, and it can help build your confidence for arguing it later.
Taking on your first murder case can represent a big step in your criminal defense career, and it’s only natural that it comes with its share of anxiousness. All eyes are on you, and it’s up to you to navigate the chaos to defend your client’s freedom.
Refuse to be intimidated. It is your responsibility to tirelessly defend your client to the best of your ability, and it’s important to recognize how opposing attorneys might use the attention or salaciousness of a homicide case to gain an upper hand on you and your client. Stay focused on the facts, and keep others focused on the facts. Take care of yourself, and it’ll allow you to take better care of your clients.
Examine evidence relating to the defendant’s mindset at the time of the homicide. Prosecutors might lob murder charges to see if they’ll stick, but a diligent and focused defense can preserve your client’s freeedom. The evidence might show that your client was responsible for the victim’s death, but you can prove that your client’s actions weren’t murder.
Leverage your professional network when you need help, and even though it might be intimidating at first, relish the challenge to take on a homicide case. You might find you really like it.