Is “Sudden Passion” A Defense To Murder In Texas?
You often hear the phrase “crime of passion” associated with a sudden act of violence driven by impulse rather than premeditation. Perhaps the most common example is the man who comes home one night to find his wife in bed with another person in bed. The man snaps and, in a fit of sudden range, kills them both.
Of course, killing someone even in a “crime of passion” is still murder. Put another way, sudden provocation of this sort is not an affirmative defense to a murder charge. But Texas law does recognize “sudden passion” as a possible mitigating factor in murder cases.
Here is what the law actually says. The Texas Penal Code normally defines murder as first-degree felony. However, after a defendant is convicted of murder, they may argue during the sentencing phase that they acted out of “sudden passion.” If the jury agrees, that will lower the conviction to a second-degree felony.
This is not a trivial distinction. In Texas, a first-degree felony carries a prison sentence of between 5 years and life. A second-degree felony, in contrast, carries a sentence of between 2 and 20 years in prison. So if a defendant can prove they acted under “sudden passion,” that can make the difference between getting out of prison in 20 years and dying behind bars.
Jury Rejects Defendant’s Account of Girlfriend’s Killing
It is important to emphasize, however, that the prosecution does not have to prove motive in a murder trial. The burden is actually on the defendant to prove–by a “preponderance of the evidence”–that they acted out of sudden passion rather than some other motive. Furthermore, that sudden passion must have been the result of an “adequate cause,” which the Penal Code defines as provocation “that would commonly produce a degree of anger, rage, resentment, or terror in a person of ordinary temper, sufficient to render the mind incapable of cool reflection.”
A recent decision from the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, Cisneroz v. State, illustrates how this burden works. In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to strangling and killing his then-girlfriend. The defendant elected to have a jury trial solely on the issue of sentencing. During the trial, he argued that he acted out of sudden passion.
Specifically, the defendant testified that he’d suspected the victim of cheating on him for some time. On the night in question, he drank 20 beers while waiting for her to come home. When she did return home, an argument ensued, during which the victim confirmed she was cheating. The defendant said he “recalled grabbing her neck” but did not recall what happened next due to his intoxicated state. There were no other witnesses.
The jury ultimately determined the defendant could not prove sudden passion and sentenced him for first-degree murder. The 14th District upheld the sentence, noting there were “inconsistencies” between the defendant’s testimony at trial and what he initially told the police. Based on this, the jury was free to disbelieve the defendant’s uncorroborated claims that he acted out of sudden passion based on his girlfriend’s admission of infidelity.
Contact Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer Keith B. French Today
In any criminal case, you do not have to speak to the police or even testify at your own trial. One person you should speak to is an experienced Pearland criminal defense attorney who can review your case and advise you of the best course of action. Contact Keith B. French Law, PLLC, today to schedule a case evaluation.