HONOLULU (KHON2) — The world has bad things happen. Sometimes, it is with intent; sometimes, it is accidental.

With the recent conviction of Stephen Brown of second-degree murder, a few folks have asked how does law enforcement officials and the District Attorney sort out the differences when charging a suspect?

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What are these charges and what sort of prison time comes with them if a person is convicted?

If one is convicted of first-degree murder, then that person will go to prison for life and will have no option for parole, ever.

If one is convicted of second-degree murder, then that person will still go to prison for life but will have the option for parole.

So, there seems to be very little difference between the results of the two charges. This needs a bit of a deeper dig to find out how officials decide which charge to pursue after arresting a suspect.

Up until 2016, first-degree murder charges in Hawai’i were used only for those who murdered multiple victims, if the victim(s) were killed by a hired killer or assassin or if the victim(s) were under the specific protection of or had a particular role with the courts of or with the law enforcement system, i.e. witness protection.  

The Hawai’i Legislature found this definition to be too narrow since it did not proactively engage other types of murder such as a murder due to domestic violence.

In its expansion, the Legislature said this, “the aggravated nature and severe sanctions traditionally associated with the crime of murder are hardly subjects of debate today. The actor in such a crime has disregarded the most highly held social values and has proved oneself an extreme danger to society. The Code recognizes the highly aggravated nature of this crime in imposing its most severe sanction.”

The criminal code provided this revision to the previous laws. A person commits the offense of murder in the first-degree if:

  1. the person intentionally or knowingly causes death:
    • there is more than one person injured in the same or separate incident.
    • a law enforcement officer, judge or prosecutor is the victim in the crime arising out of the performance of official duties.
    • a person is murdered who is known by the defendant to be a witness in a criminal prosecution and the killing is related to the person’s status as a witness in said crime.
    • a person is murdered by a hired killer or assassin in which event both the person hired and the person responsible for hiring the killer will be punished.
    • a person is murdered while the defendant was imprisoned.
    • a person is murdered from whom the defendant has been restrained, by order of any court. This includes ex parte orders that makes it illegal for the suspect from contacting, threatening or physically abusing.
    • a person is murdered who is being protected by a police officer who has ordered the defendant to leave the premises of that protected person.
  1. A person who is murdered and was known by the defendant to be a witness in a family court proceeding and the killing is related to the person’s status as a witness.
  2. a person is murdered whom the defendant restrained with intent to:
    • Hold the person for ransom or reward or
    • Use the person as a shield or hostage

With this expansion, the Hawai’i Legislature sought to extend protections for the families impacted by domestic violence.

According to the Hawai’i State Legislature, one is charged with second degree murder if they knowingly or intentionally cause the death of a person, but the circumstances are not covered in what is listed above.

Manslaughter is a whole other cup of tea.

In Hawai’i, the charge of manslaughter is a class A felony and is meant for those who are proven to have a state of mind that is less culpable than the heinous crime of murder.

The Hawai’i statutes state that a person is charged with manslaughter if a person intentionally causes another person to commit suicide. Another way to pursue a manslaughter charge is when a person is experiencing the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance for which there is a reasonable explanation.

This does not cover those who murder someone based on their actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. This includes circumstances in which the other person made an unwanted, nonforcible romantic or sexual advance toward the defendant or in which the defendant and the other person dated or had a romantic relationship.

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So, that’s it in a nutshell. There are certain murders that are enforced by state law to require any person(s) convicted of first-degree murder to spend their life in prison with no option for release. Being charged with first-degree murder does not indicate severity or brutality of the murder itself.