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Can A Vehicular Homicide Charge Turn Into A Murder Charge?

Vehicular homicide charges are usually brought when a death occurs in a motor vehicle accident involving alcohol or reckless conduct in Tennessee. Crime reporter Jamie Satterfield reported on the efforts of two Knox County prosecutors to pursue a second-degree murder charge instead of a vehicular homicide charge. One reason for the push is that a second-degree murder charge carries a stiffer punishment.

Ralpheal Coffey was originally charged with vehicular homicide after a series of events that happened after Mr.Coffey tried to run from Anderson County deputies. Once the case was presented to the Knox County grand jury, the prosecutors raised the stakes. They presented to the grand jury a second-degree murder charge. The grand jury issued an indictment on the second-degree murder charge. One thing to consider: it is not too hard to get an indictment returned since the Tennessee grand jury process is a one-sided affair.

As I stated, some prosecutors firmly believe that the punishment for vehicular homicide is not severe enough. The punishment for vehicular homicide is 8 to 12 years in prison while the punishment for a second-degree murder conviction is 15 to 25 years in prison. What does the state have to prove for a second-degree murder charge to stick? The government must prove that Mr. Coffey knowingly committed the murder. Here is the Tennessee definition of knowingly:

 "Knowing" refers to a person who acts knowingly with respect to the conduct or to circumstances surrounding the conduct when the person is aware of the nature of the conduct or that the circumstances exist. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of the person's conduct when the person is aware that the conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result.

There was one case from the 1990s where the Davidson County District Attorney's Office tried to prosecute a vehicular homicide case as a second-degree murder charge. It was unsuccessful. The big hurdle for the government is to prove that Mr.Coffey's knowingly intended to kill these folks. The accident was tragic. It was an act of stupidity by Mr.Coffey and a family suffered. However, we must follow the law of the criminal code. Stay tuned for how the case turns out.