The state of Alaska is a state with many unique factors that can make a murder case less than clear. Having the most open firearm laws in the United States, the need to carry because of potential wilderness predators, and extreme natural effects that can affect psychology, Alaska lives up to its name as “The Last Frontier.” But what does this mean for murder trials? Basically it means there are a wide array of additional factors that can come into play during trial when it comes to a murder defense.
Murder Charges In Alaska
The types of murder charges vary from state to state. Not all states have involuntary manslaughter as a charge, for example, while many states have very different degrees that can be charged. The first step to understanding options for defense is to know what charges are possible. Sometimes the best option for defense in a tough case is to knock down the charges from a high murder charge to a lower one, but you can’t know if this is viable without knowing the options.
In Alaska the possible charges are:
– 1st Degree Murder
– 2nd Degree Murder
– Criminally negligent homicide (closest to involuntary manslaughter Alaska has)
One interesting thing to note is that unlike most states, not all felony actions resulting in death are automatically charged as first degree murder. Many of these actions in Alaska can equate to second degree murder, instead.
Officially Recognized Defenses To Murder
Under the official legal code of the state of Alaska (sections 11.41.100 & 11.41.110 for those interested) there are several officially recognized defenses that are allowed. Trying one of these does not necessarily result in acquittal but they are the options available to a defense attorney in the state of Alaska.
1) The murder takes place in the heat of passion before there was any reasonable chance for tempers and passions to cool and the death was a direct result of that “heat of passion” moment.
2) That the defendant did not commit the murder at all or aid in it taking place
3) There was no reasonable reason to believe that the action taken would result in death (a freak accident type of defense)
4) The “victim” was armed and attempting to kill or seriously injure the person being charged
5) Being provoked at an unreasonable or “serious provocation” level when alcohol is not involved
Some of these defenses may work against a first degree murder charge but then get the charge dropped to second degree or manslaughter, while others gives the defendant a chance at being exonerated completely. This is the framework that a defense attorney has to work with when defending a client from murder charges in the state of Alaska.
While these won’t always work as part of a defense, there are extenuating circumstances that can be brought to trial and may carry some weight with a jury. Murders that take place during winter bring into question how the long darkness and cold of winter may affect mental health – especially in the Interior around Fairbanks and further north (this won’t be as effective in Anchorage or Juneau where there is more sunlight during winter).
Mental illness, especially if it affects the ability to determine right and wrong, is another major potential factor for defense. This generally won’t result in acquittal but it may move the severity of the charge down.
Finally, provocation and whether or not the victim was armed are important details. In fact, in certain situations, especially if there was a history of threats, just the reasonable belief a belligerent victim was armed can become a powerful defense to a jury. These aren’t slam dunks by any means, but they are important circumstances to consider during a murder defense.
Alaska Self Defense Law
The question of self defense is a valid one in a murder case where conflict was taking place or escalated quickly. While this can seem pretty cut and dry to non-legal experts, the truth is that this is actually a bit more of a gray area. An important detail to note is that Alaska has very specific rules about what is appropriate for non-lethal self defense and lethal self-defense.
In a murder case the defense needs to prove that the deadly force was justified which includes the other person attacking first, attacking with a weapon, threatening and insinuating they are armed. They also must prove that the obligation to retreat does not apply to that situation. If this can be done, then this is a reasonable defense for a murder case.
An in-depth academic study on the topic of self-defense in Alaska can be found here.
There’s a lot to consider when looking at murder defense options in Alaska, but this is a good primer for understanding what the basic options are. It is best to speak to an experienced murder defense attorney at The Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan.