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Mistakes, Tragedy, and Death

A prank. A gun. A tragedy.

These are the sad words that will replay in the minds and hearts of the citizens of Longmont, Colorado.

Last Friday, a prank went horribly wrong and left a young woman dead and a family and town in shock. A young woman snuck into a house to scare a friend and the friend reacted by shooting who he thought to be an intruder.

The legal consequences of such a tragic event often leave the victim and family in a hopeless state of dissatisfaction and despair. But, what does happen when a person shoots another by accident? What if the shooter believes that the gun is not loaded? Here is a short breakdown of some typical scenarios.

When someone is killed by another person, either directly or indirectly, it is classified as a homicide. Homicide is then broken into two categories: murder or manslaughter. Murder requires malice and is typically divided into 1) premeditated murder; 2) felony murder; 3) "depraved-heart" murder; and 4) Intent to cause serious bodily injury (which results in death). Of the four categories, only premeditated murder requires the "specific intent" to actually kill the person who died. The other categories don't require the shooter to actually intend to kill the specific victim.

A defense to premeditated murder can be mistake. Any mistake of fact, whether reasonable or not, will usually suffice as a defense to premeditated murder. Another defense is self-defense. Self-defense arises when a person has "imminent fear of serious bodily injury." This imminent fear is often judged by the surrounding circumstances and state of mind of the actor in determining whether the defense is viable.

In the sad tragedy that left the Longmont woman mortally wounded and friends and family in shock, even if charges had been filed against the shooter, then the shooter would likely have been found innocent.

The mistake of fact that the young woman was an intruder was reasonable and believable. Also, any person lawfully occupying a home has the right to use deadly force inside their home if they believe the force is necessary to prevent imminent bodily injury. Certain states have a "stand-your-ground" law which authorizes a property owner to use deadly force even if they can safely retreat from their property. That trend is growing.

Further, a legal analysis of manslaughter will likely lead to the similar result. Manslaughter is either voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is "hot-blooded" or "rage" type behavior which results in the death of another. Common examples are found when a spouse shoots a spouse who is caught in an act of infidelity.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when person is killed due to the negligence of another person. Common examples are "drunk-driving" deaths or "reckless-driving" accidents which result in the death of an unintended victim.

Unless further evidence is produced, which shows that the shooter was negligent or reckless in his actions, no criminal liability will attach to the death of the young woman.

In summary, the shooter merely thought he was protecting himself from an intruder. Sadness and anger always accompany a life cut short; however, criminal charges do not.