“Britny’s Law” Set to Expand 1st Degree Murder Beginning in December

On July 11, Governor Cooper signed into law a bill known to the public as “Britny’s Law,” which adds “domestic violence homicide” to the current statute laying out the requirements for first degree murder.  The bill was named for and passed in response to the case of Britny Puryear, a 22 year old Fuquay-Varina woman who in 2014 was shot and killed by her live-in boyfriend who was also the father of her child.

The current statutory framework for murder in North Carolina is codified in N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 14-17.  In this state, as in many other states, murder is divided into first degree and second degree, with the more serious first degree allowing for stricter sentencing (possibly even the death penalty) than second degree.  The difference between these two crimes deals primarily with the defendant’s mental state: specifically, a person is considered to have committed murder in the first degree when they acted willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation.  In other words, a person has committed first degree murder when they actually planned to kill another person and reflected on doing so (killing in cold blood).  Felony murders (murders committed in the course of the commission of a felony enumerated in the statute, such as robbery, kidnapping, etc.) also fall into this category. All other murders (except for those committed in the course of the enumerated felonies in sec. 14-17(a)) are treated as murder in the second degree, and are considered to be malice killings.  The difference between the premeditation/deliberation of first degree and the malice requirement of second degree is that a person acting with malice did not necessarily intend to kill the victim, but rather acted with such reckless disregard for human life that any reasonable person would have recognized that their actions were likely to lead to the death of another person.

Under Britny’s Law, which will take effect on December 1, a new subsection of 14-17(a) will allow for a new type of first degree murder charge: domestic violence homicide.  Under the new law, a homicide defendant who is or has been in a romantic/sexual relationship (marriage, children in common, dating partners, etc.) with the victim, and has also in the past been convicted of a domestic violence offense against that victim, will now have to overcome a rebuttable presumption that they acted with premeditation and deliberation in committing the homicide.  This effectively places the burden on those defendants to prove to a jury that they did not have the requisite mental state necessary for a first degree murder conviction.

While domestic violence cases such as the new law’s namesake illustrate why society may find broader murder laws (and thus stricter homicide punishments) to be desirable, the new law may nonetheless potentially face constitutional scrutiny when it is eventually applied in a real criminal case.  Under the United States Constitution, a person may not be convicted of a crime unless a jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that they have committed the crime charged.  Thus, the State in any criminal prosecution has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty.  The courts over the years have interpreted this framework to mean that new laws may not go so far as to ease this burden for the State or to require that a criminal defendant be forced to essentially prove his innocence.  In making such a determination, courts have typically drawn a distinction between new laws allowing a permissive inference by the jury (the jury may consider the information as evidence of guilt or an element of the crime charged), and a mandatory rebuttable presumption, in which the jury is required to consider the defendant guilty or that a particular element has been met unless the defendant effectively rebuts that evidence.

While it is currently too early to tell, it seems possible that this law could be found to be unconstitutional on the grounds that, where a defendant meets the requirements under this new law, that defendant effectively has to prove to the jury that he did NOT act with premeditation and deliberation, thus forcing him to prove his innocence (with regard to his mental state in committing the act) and as a result easing the State’s burden in prosecuting the case.  However, some case law does exist to the contrary (such as where the evidence is not contradicted and the presumption is considered to be “unerringly accurate,”), so at this point the constitutional status of Britny’s law is still uncertain.  What is certain is that over the next few years this new law will be an interesting topic of debate in legal circles.

– Johnathon Naylor