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Georgia Father's Murder Conviction in Hot Car Case Highlights Legal Distinction Between Murder and Manslaughter


Earlier this week, Justin Ross Harris was sentenced to life in prison after a jury in Georgia convicted him of murder for leaving his toddler son in a hot car while we was at work. The case attracted national attention, in part because Harris was also found to have been sending explicit messages to multiple women and minors, but also because Harris was being charged with intentionally killing his 22-month-old son.

In most cases involving children who die after being left unattended in vehicles, parents are convicted of less severe charges than murder, such as manslaughter or – in Texas – criminally negligent homicide. In Harris’ case, however, prosecutors pursued charges of malice murder under the narrative that he was eager to end his parental responsibilities.

While tragic and filled with facts worthy of publicity, the case is drawing attention to criminal law and the distinction between crimes involving individuals who are responsible for the death of another. Depending on the circumstances, there are different criminal charges that can be applied in cases involving homicide. In Texas, these include:

  • Capital Murder
  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Criminally Negligent Homicide

The difference between murder and lesser charges like manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide is intent. In order to convict an individual of murder, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual knowingly and willingly caused the death of another person. In Harris’ case, prosecutors stated that Harris intended to kill his son in order to be free of responsibilities to his family, and was found guilty of malice murder, an offense in Georgia for deliberate murders.

There are additional differences between manslaughter charges and the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. Although both offenses involve the killing of another without the element of intent or premeditation, they differ in that manslaughter involves death by recklessness. One may be charged with manslaughter after killing someone due to firing a weapon recklessly, but with no intent to kill.

In Texas, criminally negligent homicide is a step below manslaughter, as it applies to deaths where the responsible party failed to uphold certain duties or actions, even though they knew or should have known better. Someone who fails to provide help for someone they injure could be charged with this offense if that individual later dies from their injuries. Parents have been charged with criminally negligent homicide in Texas after leaving a child unattended in a car.

Any situation involving the death of another is tragic, but when it comes to criminal law, the unique facts and circumstances surrounding the death are important. In homicide cases, and any other criminal charge for that matter, the state determines which charge to prosecute, and must therefore prove the elements of that charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you have questions about criminal law or a specific case involving you or a loved one, our criminal defense attorneys at Scott H. Palmer, P.C. are available to review your case, explain the legal elements involved, and discuss how we may be able to help. Contact us today for a consultation.

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