By ERIC BRADNER
Evansville Courier & Press
Though some defendants face both charges, Indiana prosecutors secured nearly twice as many convictions last year for murder as they did for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
George Zimmerman, who was acquitted by a Florida jury in the slaying of Trayvon Martin, faced both a second-degree murder charge and one for manslaughter — what’s called a “lesser included offense” that prosecutors sought as a backup.
In Indiana in 2012, a total of 84 inmates were sent to the Department of Correction after murder convictions. Another 28 were sentenced for attempted murder and 10 more for charges related to aiding murder or conspiring to commit murder.
That easily tops the 43 inmates who were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sent to state prisons last year, plus five more who were convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Legal experts said the murder convictions are often prosecutors’ goal — and that they can ask judges to include manslaughter charges to give juries another option if they feel the prosecution has fallen short of proving the defendant’s intent.
“Often, what happens is the prosecutor will charge the highest-level crime that they think they can actually prove,” said Carol Chase, a criminal law professor at Pepperdine University. “You don’t need to actually charge two separate crimes. You charge the higher crime and then if the proof doesn’t come in as anticipated, you can seek instruction for the lesser included crime.”
In Indiana, the charge of voluntary manslaughter is often used for defendants who were enraged — in a “mental state of heat” — but who did not plan the slaying. Involuntary manslaughter, meanwhile, is for situations such as drivers who hit and kill others while under the influence of alcohol.
“Each case, when charged, regardless of the type of crime or alleged crime, is fact specific,” said Jennifer Thuma, the legislative liaison for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council. “A prosecutor must review the facts of each case and carefully weigh its strengths and weaknesses in considering whether it may be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”