Texas Law on Murder and Homicide: 101

November 19, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal


(972) 369-0577

A person causing the death of another can be prosecuted in a number of different ways with vastly different punishment ranges in Texas – though they are all felonies in one form or another.

Murder and homicide are legally very similar to assault the main difference where the result of defendant’s actions are death instead of injury.

First Year Law School on Murder

In first year law school criminal law they teach to follow the “mens rea” which is latin for mental state when it comes to murder or homicide.  Premeditation (or lack of pre-meditation) is the single biggest factor in how murder is prosecuted.

The general provision for Texas Criminal Homicide is simple enough though the deeper you get into Texas murder law the more complex it becomes.


(a) A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.

(b) Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.


Murder is committed where someone knowingly or intentionally causes the death of an individual under Tex.Pen.C. 19.02(b).

Sounds legally simple enough but remember to follow the “mens rea.”  If there is “sudden passion” which resulted in the homicide then it carries a lesser punishment.  Tex.Pen.C. 19.02(c).

Also there is a concept called “felony murder” which means if you are committing a felony (like robbing a bank or engaging in a car chase) and someone dies – it’s murder as well.  Tex.Pen.C. 19.02(b)(3).

Capital Murder

Capital murder is murder plus an aggravating factor.  See Tex.Pen.C 19.03 for a full list but it generally includes:

  • The murder of a public servant such as peace officer or firefighter;
  • Murder as a part of another felony act such as kidnapping, burglary or sexual assault;
  • Murder for hire/ solicitation;
  • Murder of a child.

Capital Murder can either be punished by death in certain instances or by automatic life without parole.


Manslaughter is committed where the person recklessly causes the death of another.  It can often be vehicular in nature.  It can also often involve intoxication.  Manslaughter is a 2nd degree felony punishable by 2-20 years of prison.

Reckless is where a person “…is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”  Tex.Pen.C. 6.03(c).

Criminally Negligent Homicide

Where criminal negligence causes a persons death – this statute can be applicable.  This is known as a “state jail felony” punishable between 180 days and 2 years of prison.

Criminal negligence is basically when a person “…ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur.”  Tex.Pen.C. 6.03(d).  It can often be vehicular in nature too.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.



Netflix American Murder: The Family Next Door and 21st Century Courtroom Storytelling

October 24, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal


(972) 369-0577

What a horrific, tragic, and deranged murder!

Trying to compartmentalize and separate the legal aspects of Netflix “American Murder: The Family Next Door” from the human aspects is difficult to do – but it’s exactly what we do as criminal defense lawyers.

I’m writing because I’m very impressed with how Netflix was able to tell the story through all the text messages, home and police videos, and social media.  It’s really a view into what 21st century crime investigation and courtroom story telling can look like.

This story in particular is nothing short of soul-crushing and everyone is happy Shannan Watts, her children and her family got the justice they deserved and Chris Watts is behind bars for the rest of his life.  But 21st century evidence such as cell phone texts, videos, social media including police advances in body-camera evidence are revolutionary ways to prove innocence too.

How Netflix Told the Story

I was fascinated by how Netflix was able to tell the story – not through talking heads or narration – but just by showing us the text messages, then showing us police body-cam videos, sprinkling in home movies, showing us social media posts and comments, and on and on.  Isn’t it amazing how our technology and ways of communicating can tell our stories this way?

Cell Phone Evidence

I lecture on the topic of cell phone evidence in the courtroom and have written about it as well.  It’s not nearly as easy to do as Netflix made it look.  We were able to see victim Shannan Watts’ texts to her family and friends as well as to Chris.

Notably absent in my mind were Chris’ texts to anyone other than Shannan — and this tells me they weren’t able to get into his phone.

Police Body-Cam Evidence

I can’t understate what an amazing, wonderful tool police body-cameras are.  In the American Murder: The Family Next Door, we got to see Chris Watts’ charade with our own eyes when the police initially came over to his house to locate Shannan the day after the killing.  We got to see Chris Watts face, demeanor, and mannerisms — the smallest details.

In the past – we’d have gotten a police officer’s recollection from the witness stand and potentially some of the other people there too.  Their testimony would be almost always be shaded and slanted for no other reasons they are humans with a particular perspective.  If this case had turned into a trial – they’d have had to have testified anyway… but the point I’m trying to make is the body-cameras cut through all of that.  We see what we see.

The law has often pushed police towards recording interviews and statements.  Texas has a statute (Tex.Code.Crim.P. 38.22) which requires custodial interrogations to be recorded.  It protects both the police and the accused from an unfair spinning or characterization of how the interview actually went.

Unfortunately, in the past it has been a law enforcement tactic for a police officer to “forget” their recording device before an interview – so they can spin the interview how they’d like in court later.  Police agencies who require bod-cams basically put an end to it.

And as a side note – sometimes the police forget to turn off the body cameras and we get to see the water-cooler talk about the case and we hear weaknesses about the cases we’d never hear in a courtroom from the police.

Social Media Evidence

It’s difficult to know what, if any, artistic license Netflix took in this arena.  They presented several home videos as if they were social media posts.  Perhaps they were and perhaps that was just how they presented them. What they did use was effective in telling the story.

Legally this would be far more complicated to use in a courtroom than in a documentary.  There are issues with what we call “authentication” and it could involve having to deal directly with social media mega-giants who often treat both prosecutors and defense lawyers like fleas they shake off when they get annoyed with us.

Police Interviews and Polygraph

This was the part of the Chris Watts story which is more old-school and presented nothing new. Bringing in a suspect for a polygraph is a very common investigative tactic.  The polygraph itself is inadmissible in court and as lawyers we’re always very leery of who is conducting the polygraph… because they’re all based on the questions and the questions can be slanted in certain directions.

When Police do a polygraph they almost always want to do a follow-up interview.  They think the person will fail the polygraph, and just like a linebacker wants to crush the quarterback after the ball is snapped — the police want to get a confession right after someone takes the polygraph (even if the results are inconclusive or if they accuse the person of using “countermeasures” or trying to game the test).

It worked for the police like a charm against Chris Watts.  They even used  the age old, “are you a monster or just some guy who made a mistake” line on him — which is a question we hear all the time in cases like sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence.  If the suspect chooses, “I just made a mistake” then the police have their confession.

The police also pretended to know more about Chris’ life than they actually knew at the time.  I don’t recall anything they’d seen at the time of his interview which suggested they would know he was having an affair – but when he admitted to it, they represented to him they knew this all along.  It’s a part of the Reid method of interrogation (that’s another topic).

Overall I found the show — again horrific and tragic — yet fascinating from a lawyer’s perspective.  The Chris Watts murder may be a high-budget and high profile outlier in how the story was able to be told… but during the 21st century, I’m pretty certain we’ll be using text messages, home videos and police body-cams to tell much more complete stories for other types of cases too.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.




Important Lessons from the Zimmerman Verdict and Interactive Poll

July 15, 2013

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal


(972) 369-0577

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t watch much of the trial — or the hoards of legal analysts who told us what to think.  So you won’t be getting red-hot opinions about how smart/stupid the jury was here.

I see merit in virtually every argument I’ve read online from friends and family in social media or even from editorials on TV or in the newspaper.  George Zimmerman may have gotten away with cold-blooded murder.  Then again maybe he was defending himself from an attacker.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.  I just know we did our best to figure it all out.

The strong reaction I see everywhere — going both directions — reminds me of simple truisms about why the framer’s of the constitution gave us the rights we have.

Humans are biased.  Others need protection from our biases because when we put our heads together in big numbers we can be very dangerous to people we aren’t interested in hearing from.

Don’t think so?  I guess advertising doesn’t work on you… it just works on me?

Our rights guaranteed by the framers of the Constitution are designed to combat our biases, prejudices, and knee-jerk reactions we would naturally have in protecting our families and communities in favor of protecting individuals.

The presumption of innocence holds jurors must presume an accused person as innocent as they would a neighbor or even the judge.

The accused has the right to remain silent because strapping someone in a chair and launching loaded questions at them is a tactic of 3rd world justice.

The burden of proof never shifts to the accused.  It’s impossible to prove you’re innocent of a traffic ticket when you think about it.  Especially if you’re dealing with a jury or judge whose default is to trust the policeman who wrote you the citation.

But here’s where the rubber meets the road — these rights are hollow unless we understand why we have them and they’re hollow if we only give them lip service.

The aftermath of this verdict has been ugly arguments and protest.  Anytime we debate our system of justice, though, it’s a healthy exercise as long as it leads to greater understanding instead of disillusionment.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For legal advice about this situation or any other, you should contact an attorney directly



Texas Grand Jury FAQ’s

April 2, 2010

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal


(972) 369-0577

What is a Grand Jury:

A Grand Jury is a panel that decides whether a felony should be indicted or not.  The DA’s office can file misdemeanors on their own, however, to file felony charges a grand jury must agree there is probable cause.

Grand jury meetings are secretive and confidential.  The public has no access to their deliberations.  Typically they deliberate matters brought before them by the District Attorneys office.  Here is a link to some technical and historical information about Texas grand juries.

Grand Jury Findings

Grand juries can do several things with cases they hear.  They can issue a true bill which equals a felony indictment or they can issue a no-bill turning the case down.  Occasionally they will charge a person with a misdemeanor instead of a felony through indictment.  After a true bill is issued, the case gets assigned to a court and proceeds normally.

Criminal Defendant’s Rights During Grand Jury Proceedings

If you really think about it… having a grand jury as a hurdle for the prosecution in and of itself is the only real right you have in this process (in theory anyway).

A criminal defendant does not have the right to testify at the grand jury nor does your attorney have the right to be present.  Because the proceedings are secretive the transcript, if any, is not available.  You can’t even watch.

What Can I Do If I’m Under Grand Jury Investigation of if I Get a Grand Jury Letter?

Call an attorney.  The prosecutors have discretion to allow your attorney to submit a packet of information to a grand jury to attempt to dissuade them from indictment.  Also the prosecutor can agree to allow you to testify before the grand jury — but not in the presence of your attorney.  On many cases, prosecutors have incentive to negotiate with you prior to your case going to grand jury.  As a policy, Collin County DA’s office will not negotiate with people at the grand jury phase that are unrepresented by counsel.  This may seem like a frustrating policy — but frankly it’s for your own protection.  Grand jury situations are very complicated and the ramifications are very serious if mismanaged.

Jeremy F. Rosenthal, Esq.

(972) 562-7549

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For specific legal advice you should consult an attorney.