Memphis Murder Defense Lawyer

There is no more serious accusation the government can level against you than the charge of murder. Defending yourself can be daunting, time-consuming and both mentally and physically exhausting. If you lose, even the minimum sentence for second-degree murder can have you facing 15 years in a state penitentiary. No other crime can lead to a sentence of death. If you are charged with murder, you need to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.

Murder and homicide are related (murder is a type of homicide), but not all homicides are murders. What we will cover with you here are how murder is distinct from other kinds of criminal killings, the different degrees of murder, sentencing considerations for a murder conviction and some possible defenses to a charge of murder.

What constitutes murder as opposed to other crimes that involve a killing?

The starting point for our inquiry is that the law defines the killing of one person by another as “homicide.” The first question to ask in any homicide situation is whether it was lawful, or criminal. The second question is, if the killing was criminal, whether it was murder or another form of unlawful homicide.

Lawful homicide

Like all states, Tennessee recognizes a right to self-defense, which can justify committing homicide under certain circumstances. Here we are primarily concerned with criminal homicide, so we will leave a more detailed discussion about lawful homicide for another article.

Criminal homicide not amounting to murder

Criminal homicide takes multiple forms, of which murder is one. Types of criminal homicide that fall short of murder include:

  • Reckless homicide
  • Criminally negligent homicide
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Vehicular homicide
  • Aggravated vehicular homicide

How criminal homicide becomes murder

What determines whether a homicide becomes murder, and the type of murder it may be, is the state of mind of the person who committed the killing. Tennessee law divides the crime of murder into two general types: first-degree, and second-degree.

First-degree murder

First-degree murder, defined in Tennessee penal code 39-13-202, comes in three variations: premeditated and intentional murder, felony murder, and what might be called “mayhem” murder.

  • Premeditated and intentional: Also colloquially known as “cold-blooded” murder, this is a killing that is contemplated in advance, using “reflection and judgment” to form the intent to kill. First-degree murder is not something that happens in the heat of the moment, although no “minimum time limit” exists for the premeditation to form the intention.The behaviors and statements of the accused before the killing need to be consistent with this formation of intent, such as “lying in wait” to ambush the victim, the purchase or other acquisition of the weapon or accessory items used to commit the killing, the making of a list of things to do before, during and after the killing, or statements made to others indicating the intention to kill.
  • Felony murder: Sometimes when a person is engaged in another serious crime someone else gets killed. For example, someone enters the home of another intending to steal things there (burglary), but when the homeowner confronts the burglar he shoots and kills the homeowner. Even though no premeditation or intent to kill existed, the death occurring during the commission – or attempt to commit – the separate felony makes this a form of first-degree murder. Tennessee law is specific about the kinds of felonies that can lead to a charge of first-degree, felony murder:
BurglaryRape, including rape or aggravated rape of a child
TheftAggravated child abuse
Air Piracy (Hijacking)Robbery
Aggravated child neglectAttempted first-degree murder (of someone else)
Act of terrorism
  • “Mayhem” murder: The death of another resulting from the placement or use of a destructive device such as a bomb, even if no premeditation or intent to commit murder preceded it, still rises to the level of first-degree murder. Planting a bomb at a building, intending for it to explode when no one would be there, will still be first-degree murder if contrary to your plan someone was in fact inside, and the bomb kills that person.

Second-degree murder

Second-degree murder, defined in Tennessee penal code 39-13-210, differs from first-degree murder in that the state of mind of the accused does not need to reflect premeditation or intent, but rather to a “knowing” standard. That is, the person who committed the killing did so with the “reasonably certain” awareness that his or her conduct would cause death. For example, a “road rage” incident gets out of hand, a fight ensues, and one of the enraged participants grabs a tire iron and hits his opponent in the head with it, killing him.

Second degree murder does not need to be a sudden occurrence. It can also happen as the result of a knowing pattern of activities, such as violent domestic abuse or child abuse. Also, under Tennessee law a viable fetus can be a murder victim. In this situation, the “knowing” standard reflects the defendant’s awareness that the cumulative effect of what he or she was doing to the victim would be reasonably certain to cause death.

Also, illegal drug dealers can be found liable for second-degree murder if the drugs they sell are the direct or “proximate” cause of the death of whomever acquired the drugs from them (this applies only to Schedule I or Schedule II drugs).

What are the penalties for murder?

First-degree murder

A conviction for first-degree murder in Tennessee is punishable by a sentence of life imprisonment, or life imprisonment without parole, or death. The sentence is determined in a separate proceeding after the conviction itself. During this phase, the jury considers whether aggravating circumstances, mitigating circumstances or both were present when the murder took place.


Aggravating Circumstances Mitigating Circumstances
Tennessee law lists 15 types of aggravating circumstances:Tennessee law recognizes nine kinds of mitigating circumstances:
An adult kills a victim who is less than 12.No significant history of prior criminal activity.
The defendant has one or more prior violent felony convictions.The defendant’s being under the influence of an extreme mental or emotional disturbance.
The defendant knowingly created a “great risk” of death to two or more people other than the victim.Murder of a person who was involved with the defendant’s conduct, or who consented to what the defendant was doing.
Murder-for-hire.The defendant reasonably believed that the killing was morally justified (for example, mistaken belief of self-defense).
Murder involving torture or serious physical abuse beyond anything needed to cause death.The defendant was a minor accomplice to a murder committed by someone else.
Murder committed to avoid arrest or prosecution of the defendant or someone else.The defendant was acting under extreme duress or domination by someone else.
Felony murder, committed by the defendant or someone else at the defendant’s behest.The defendant was either very young or very old at the time of the killing.
Murder committed while in law enforcement custody, or during an escape attempt from custody.The defendant lacked the ability to understand the wrongful nature of the killing or to comply with the law because he or she was subject to a mental disease or defect, or was substantially impaired because of intoxication.

Note: if the defendant is found to be “mentally retarded” as Tennessee law defines that term, then a death sentence cannot be imposed.
Murder of a law enforcement officer, corrections officer, or first responder in the performance of his or her duties when the defendant knew or should have known that was the case.Other mitigating factors based on evidence presented by the defense or the prosecution, during the trial or the sentencing phase.
Murder of a present or former official of the court, such as a judge, district attorney or state attorney general when the defendant killed the victim because of their status in that capacity.
Murder of a politician because of his or her status as such (assassination).
Murder of three or more people, whether singly or together, within a 48-month period (mass murderers and serial killers).
Murder that also involved knowing mutilation of the victim after death.
Murder of an especially vulnerable victim, such as a person 70 or older, or who suffered from a significant physical or mental handicap, when the defendant knew or should have known of that vulnerable status.
Murder committed during an act of terrorism.


The jury will consider the aggravating and mitigating factors and arrive at its sentencing decision as follows:

  • If no aggravating circumstances exist, then a sentence of life in prison is warranted.
  • If by unanimous decision the jury determines that the aggravating factors do not beyond a reasonable outweigh the mitigating ones, then the sentence will be life or life without parole.
  • If the prosecution seeks the death penalty and the jury unanimously decides that beyond a reasonable doubt the aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating ones, then a death sentence is warranted.
  • If the jury cannot agree on the imposition of the death penalty, then the court will direct it to consider a sentence of life or life without parole. If the jury cannot decide between those two alternatives, then the court imposes a life sentence.

Second-degree murder

Second-degree murder in Tennessee is a Class A felony, punishable by 15 to 60 years in a state prison and a possible fine of up to $50,000.

What are some defenses to a charge of murder?

Given the life-altering if not life-ending consequences to you upon a conviction for murder, your legal defense needs to be as thorough and aggressive as possible, as early as possible. Facts need to be verified or accounts challenged; witnesses for both you and the state need to be identified and their credibility investigated; evidence needs to be gathered before it disappears, and much more goes into preparing for trial.

Defenses to murder break down into three general areas: fact-based challenges, state-of-mind-based challenges, and technical challenges.

Fact-based challenges seek to cast reasonable doubt on things like your identity as the killer, or to introduce possible mitigating circumstances like intoxication or the absence of a criminal history, or to call into question the truthfulness or reliability of the prosecution’s witnesses. Expert witness testimony is another aspect of fact-based challenges to the state’s case.

State-of-mind challenges go to the heart of defeating a murder charge by raising reasonable doubt about whether you had the requisite premeditation or intent to commit murder, or whether you really knew that what you were doing would result in the death or another, or to introduce mitigating factors like extreme duress or mistaken belief.

Technical challenges scrutinize how the state prepares and conducts its case. An error in how the police gather evidence can lead to its exclusion; a mistake in the chain of custody can call into question the credibility of evidence. Objections at trial need to be raised in a timely manner to preserve legal arguments for appeal if need be. Related to technical challenges is the careful selection of candidates during jury selection.

The most successful defense can lead to acquittal of any homicide charge (you didn’t do it, and weren’t otherwise involved with it). If acquittal isn’t possible, then strong challenges to whether the state can prove its case, such as your state of mind, can improve your odds in plea or sentencing negotiations, or lead to a reduction of charges. By casting enough doubt on whether you knowingly committed a homicide, for example, the state may have to settle for reckless homicide instead of first or second-degree murder.

Contact an Experienced Memphis Murder Defense Lawyer

With your life and liberty on the line, don’t try to represent yourself, and don’t entrust either to a public defender or to an attorney whose practice doesn’t include a strong emphasis in criminal defense. You are not a guinea pig for an inexperienced lawyer to learn from by overlooking things or making mistakes. Having the best available criminal defense law firm on your side really can make all the difference in the world for you when the state accuses you of murder. Contact the Hamilton Law Firm today.