In Minnesota, as in anywhere else in the country, murder and other types of homicide are among the most serious criminal charges.
Apart from their high stakes in terms of legal consequences, these types of cases nearly always carry a high psychological toll for the accused, their family, and other people connected to the case.
Minnesota distinguishes three degrees of murder that someone can be charged with. This page will also cover forms of unlawful killing that do not rise to the level of murder.
Murder Degrees in Minnesota
Two significant factors that influence how a murder is charged out are premeditation and intent. Premeditation is when a person plans a crime such as murder, as opposed to acting spontaneously.
Whether or not a reasonable person is able to expect that their actions will result in the loss of someone’s life can determine whether intent exists for a murder charge. The actual instruction on intent that is used in a murder trial can include “acted with the purpose” or “believed that the act” would cause a given result.
First-degree requires intent and sometimes premeditation. Second-degree murder does not require premeditation and is divided into two sections, only one of which requires intent. Third-degree murder does not require premeditation or intent.
First-degree murder (Minn. Stat. 609.185) is generally regarded as the most heinous and severe crime. This level of a murder is sometimes charged based on the identity or role of who has been murdered; some examples of this type of first-degree murder in Minnesota are:
- Killing someone during an act of domestic abuse, if the perpetrator has a historic pattern of domestic abuse (whether past victims are the murder victim or another family or household member)
- Killing a child under certain circumstances of repeated child abuse
- Killing any of the following if the victim is acting in their official capacity: a police officer or sheriff’s deputy, a judge, a prosecutor, or a guard employed at a Minnesota jail, prison, or juvenile detention center
- Killing a witness to prevent him or her from testifying against you
Other reasons for a first-degree murder charge result from the defendant’s conduct, not the victim’s identity. Minnesota law outlines the following ways to commit this crime:
- Premeditated murder, i.e. preparing in advance to kill someone.
- Killing a person during a sexual assault. If you’ve committed or tried to commit a criminal sexual crime in the first or second degree by using violence or force, and it results in the death of the victim, you can be found guilty of first-degree murder.
- Intentionally killing a person during a burglary: you committed or tried to commit a burglary, and during the course of your actions you intentionally killed someone. (Accidentally killing someone while committing a burglary is a different type of homicide.)
- Killing someone during an aggravated robbery (that is, robbery with a dangerous weapon or with the infliction of bodily harm). As with burglary, intentional killing is required to meet the first-degree murder threshold.
- Killing a person during a kidnapping (again the intent to kill must be occur)
Intentionally killing someone while committing or trying to commit first or second-degree arson.
- Killing someone by engaging in terrorism, whether you committed, tried to commit, or conspired with others to commit a felony in furtherance of terrorism. Related to first-degree murder, the definition of terrorism includes premeditation, violence to either people or property, and the intent either to terrorize the public (in addition to more targeted victims) or to cause a major disruption to civic activity.
- Intentionally killing someone during a drive-by shooting.
- Intentionally killing a person during certain types of drug sales, or attempted sales.
Since 1911, there has been no death penalty in the state of Minnesota. Therefore, the harshest sentence one can receive for a conviction of first-degree murder is a life sentence in prison. In order to convict a defendant of this highest level of murder, intent to kill must be proven by the state.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, this can be a fairly straightforward or a more difficult task for the prosecutor. If there is no direct evidence of intent, such as a confession by the defendant, intent must be shown through circumstantial evidence. It can also be challenging to distinguish between the intent to kill and the intent to only wound.
Not only must the state prove intent, but it may have to prove premeditation as well, if dictated by the circumstances of the case. To do this, it must eliminate the possibility that the killing was done as a spontaneous reaction or in an outburst of sudden emotion.
Despite the high bar the prosecution is supposed to meet for someone to be found guilty of first-degree murder, the stakes are so great for this crime that it is clearly important to hire the best criminal defense attorney you can.
Ringstrom Law understands the kind and amount of preparation required to defend this type of case. Perhaps most importantly, our attorneys do not shy away from murder trials and everything they entail: intense preparation, careful strategy, and zealous advocacy.
Second-degree murder (Minn. Stat. 609.19) may or may not require intent. These are the ways to commit second-degree murder in Minnesota:
- Killing someone with intent but without planning the murder (i.e. no premeditation).
- Killing someone unintentionally while committing or trying to commit a drive-by shooting.
- Killing someone unintentionally while using violence or force to commit a felony (other than first or second-degree criminal sexual conduct).
- Killing someone unintentionally while trying to injure that person, if there is an order for protection for that person and against the perpetrator.
- A second-degree murder conviction can result in a forty-year prison sentence.
A third-degree murder charge (Minn. Stat. 609.195) falls between second-degree murder and manslaughter. No intent to kill is required for any case of third-degree murder. The “depraved mind” language of this crime is regarded by some legal practitioners as old-fashioned to the point of being unhelpful to the criminal justice system, but for now it remains in the statute.
Classic examples of this level of murder are driving a vehicle or firing a gun into a group of people. This murder charge can also result when a person is killed through any dangerous act showing indifference to the sanctity of human life. Another example of a third-degree murder is selling tainted Schedule I or II drugs to another that cause that person’s death.
If convicted of third-degree murder, you face a sentence of up to twenty-five years in prison. If death is the result of Schedule I or II drugs, there might be a fine of up to $40,000 attached in addition to a prison sentence.
Aiding and Abetting a Murder
You may not believe you’ve committed a crime if you’ve only provided a weapon, or perhaps just made sure a door remained unlocked, but the government regards these acts as crimes if your actions resulted in the murder of another human being.
Performing actions like this is considered aiding and abetting: in a sense, encouraging another to commit a crime, even if you were not present at the place where the crime happened. Helping to cover up a murder after the fact is also its own crime.
The terms “aiding and abetting,” “accessory to murder,” and “accomplice to murder” essentially have the same practical effect: you may be criminally liable and sometimes held just as accountable as the person who committed the actual murder.
There are numerous ways to aid and abet murder, such as
- Concealing or destroying a murder weapon
- Wiping or destroying a cell phone or computer to get rid of murder evidence
- Providing a false alibi for the one who performed the killing
- Luring the victim to the murderer’s location
- Other acts done to help someone avoid arrest or punishment for murder
- Profiting from the victim’s death by taking his or her property
Terminology with Murder and Homicide Charges
Many legal words and phrases used in murder or homicide cases have popular meanings that don’t correspond well to the reality of the criminal justice system and what Minnesota law actually states. TV shows, movies, and other media and entertainment sources have contributed to these mismatches. Here are some of the more common ones, which your Ringstrom Law attorney will likely also review with you at some point during your case:
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
This is a phrase frequently uttered in the context of criminal cases, but it does not mean others actually believe you are innocent of your charges. It’s more helpful to think of this phrase as a legal concept than a philosophical one.
A jury or judge is supposed to presume every defendant innocent, and the state has the burden of proving the defendant committed the crime he or she is charged with. If proof is insufficient, the presumption of innocence should stand.
“Innocent until proven guilty” can be a powerful phrase to incorporate into the defense case of a murder or homicide trial, if backed up properly and not just stated in a hollow or cliche manner.
Ringstrom Law will use this principle to the best of its ability to defend you, forcing the government to provide proof and insisting on your rights as an innocent person in the eyes of the law. We believe in providing you both the legal and emotional support you need when going through the harrowing process of a murder trial, and will do everything in our power to prove your innocence, or to have your charges reduced.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a phrase often used in jury trial. It means that for the jury to convict you, it may only do so on the evidence presented by the prosecution without any of the jurors holding any reasonable doubts that you are guilty of the crime.
Reasonable doubt is the standard of proof used in criminal trials, both jury trials and court trials (trial by a judge instead of a jury). If the judge or jury has doubts about your guilt, and those doubts aren’t fanciful or capricious, Minnesota law says they have to pronounce you “not guilty.”
Examples can clarify the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable doubts: a reasonable doubt might be that the accused’s alibi is plausible, whereas an unreasonable doubt might be that a magic spell forced the accused to commit a murder.
Statute of Limitations
There is no statute of limitations for murder or manslaughter charges in Minnesota. If you’ve been involved in a murder, it does not matter how long ago it was committed, or how long you’ve been attempting to avoid the charges. When the case has made its way through the court system, no matter how many years after the act, you can still receive just as harsh a sentence as the day the crime occurred.
A wrongful death lawsuit can be brought against someone who has supposedly caused someone else to die through a wrongful act, or through negligence. In a wrongful death lawsuit, it is typically the family of the victim who is pressing charges on behalf of a family member they have lost.
When a civil case is filed for wrongful death, there is less of a burden of proof required than what is expected in a criminal case, which has the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” burden.
Criminal cases have much stricter standards of proving guilt, as the defendant can permanently lose their liberty if found guilty of a murder charge. In civil cases, the outcome generally means the family of the victim will be awarded an amount of money as a form of compensation for the loss of a loved one.
Defending Murder/Homicide Charges
Building a defense strategy against a murder or homicide charge often includes making a case that you did not commit the killing.
If that is not plausible—if, for instance, you’ve admitted to killing someone and there isn’t any good reason to doubt your admission—then a defense strategy could be based on the killing being justified, or that it lacked premeditation or intent.
Here is a more in-depth look at some of the possible defenses to murder or homicide:
Sometimes a homicide is not the crime it may seem to be, but rather the killing was legally justified. Common justifications are self-defense and defense of others. Your attorney at Ringstrom Law may be able to argue that you acted with reasonable use of force against a reasonable threat of death or a reasonable threat of bodily harm.
If there has been a case of mistaken identity and you did not commit the murder you are charged with, you need a skilled criminal defense attorney to help clear your name.
Once someone is charged with murder, or even becomes the lead suspect, investigators frequently develop tunnel vision and no longer pay much attention to any evidence that could exonerate you.
Ringstrom Law should be contacted immediately to help you find evidence and build your case for a dismissal of your charges. A strong alibi proving your innocence can be effective, as well as various kinds of forensic evidence (DNA, GPS data, cell phone tower data, etc.). The sooner evidence is looked for, the more likely it is to be found and preserved properly.
Without a strong alibi or alternative perpetrator evidence, the mistaken identity defense is akin to a reasonable doubt defense: essentially the argument is that the state failed to prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt, and has left open the possibility that someone besides the defendant committed the murder.
While it is not preferred to employ this defense, sometimes it is the only one available. Factually innocent people sometimes don’t have good alibi evidence, and the criminal justice system is supposed to accommodate this situation by requiring the state to prove its case to a very high level.
Bruce Ringstrom Sr. and Bruce Ringstrom Jr. have both successfully gotten acquittals for clients using reasonable doubt defenses.
If someone has mental illness and it has caused them to be cognitively unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions, an attorney at Ringstrom Law can enter an insanity defense on their behalf.
The threshold is high for this type of defense. In other words, it often fails because the court doesn’t regard a defendant as sufficiently mentally ill to be acquitted and then committed to the state hospital.
Still, there are two ways to mount this defense in Minnesota: showing that the defendant didn’t understand the killing was wrong, or showing that the defendant isn’t able to participate in the defense of the case.
Misfortune or Accident
If you have killed someone as a result of an accident while performing lawful activities, it is not considered a crime, provided that you weren’t acting with criminal negligence or recklessness. Even if it can be proven that there was some negligence or recklessness involved, the misfortune or accident defense can be used to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, for instance.
Leading Murder/Homicide Defense Attorneys in North Dakota and Minnesota
A charge of murder or homicide is one of the most severe criminal charges—and one of the most life-changing events—a person can face. No matter which degree of murder or homicide you are being charged with, you need a strong criminal defense team working with you. Ringstrom Law represents all its clients with diligence and integrity.
Contact us at 218-284-0484 as soon as you or your loved one has been charged, or even before charges are brought if the circumstances allow it. We are ready to get behind you, defend you against these charges, and find the best solution possible.