The two men embroiled in a fatal altercation had been friends.
They played dice together. They had other mutual friends, who all gathered at a vacant home at the edge of town on Hemlock Avenue to throw back beers. Occasionally, there were drugs.
That’s what police say they were up to the night a fight broke out. One ended up dead, and the other in handcuffs.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that at the outset, a case like this would appear to be a clear-cut case of murder, a Class A felony in Alabama resulting in the potential of 25 years to life behind bars – possibly even the death penalty, in certain cases.
But the defendant managed to escape that fate, ultimately being convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and recently given a sentence of four years in prison. He’ll serve 15 years if he violates his five-year parole once he’s released.
Part of the reason this man’s sentence was relatively light, compared to other cases that involve the death of another person, was that there were conflicting versions as to what actually happened – with the prosecution’s account not quite jiving with what many of the witnesses were saying.
Believe it or not, conflicting witness accounts can be positive for a defense team. That’s because even if it fails to definitively prove our theory, it might create enough doubt about the prosecution’s theory. The burden of proof is always on the state in criminal cases. That means juries may only convict if they believe the prosecution’s version “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Conflicting witness statements are quite effective in creating reasonable doubt.
In this case, the defendant, a 20-year-old man, was accused of fatally shooting his 28-year-old friend in the summer of 2011. Police found the victim deceased on the front porch.
Soon after, prosecutors charged him with murder, but defense lawyers contended from the beginning that this was an issue of self-defense. Self-defense can be a difficult to successfully argue, but this case was bolstered by the fact that several others who said that the defendant was acting aggressively that night and had reached for his own gun just before the 20-year-old fired a single, fatal shot.
An autopsy would later reveal a combination of Lortab, Xanax and alcohol in the victim’s system.
The state did have one witness testifying that the victim did not have a gun. But the rest who were there all said he did.
Instead of murder, the jury ultimately convicted the defendant of reckless manslaughter. This is when an individual has behaved recklessly or carelessly, though not with extreme in difference to human life. It’s still a class B felony, which means it’s punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The fact that this defendant was given 15 years, reduced to just four behind bars, likely has everything to do with the fact that both men were engaged in illegal behavior at the time of the incident and both the judge and jury could say both held at least some modicum of responsibility for what happened.
The testimony of witnesses indicating that the defendant was merely acting in self-preservation certainly helped.