Wilmington Murder Defense Lawyer

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Facing murder charges can be terrifying. Murder is widely regarded as the worst crime that someone can commit. The law, penalties, and seriousness with which the offense is prosecuted all reflect that sentiment. It’s easy to feel like you don’t have a chance with the authority and seemingly unlimited resources available to the prosecution. However, having the right Wilmington murder defense lawyer on your side can give you a much better chance of a favorable outcome.

At the W. James Payne Law Firm, we understand how frightening murder charges can be. We also believe that defendants should face such serious charges with a formidable defense made on their behalf.

In more than thirty years of experience, W. James Payne has defended those facing such serious charges, and he understands the types of strong defenses that will make an impact on juries. He’s ready to protect the rights of those facing murder charges and craft an effective defense.

What Does a Wilmington Murder Defense Lawyer Do?

It’s the job of a Wilmington murder defense attorney to act as their client’s representative and to advocate for their interests during the legal process. They can perform several critical functions as your representative, but one of the most important is advising you on what steps to take.

You’ve likely never been in the position of facing murder charges, so it’s critically important that you hire someone who has experience with these cases. They can help you determine the options that may be available to you. At the W. James Payne Law Firm, our experience and understanding of the law allow us to provide our clients with the information they need to consider in their particular circumstances.

As your legal representation, we are also responsible for preparing a defense on your behalf. The foundation of a defense is often a thorough investigation. We will need to look at the circumstances surrounding your charges and identify anything that may be helpful in your defense. We may need to use the power of subpoena to ensure that we are able to gather and correct the relevant information.

Another critical component of preparing a defense is understanding how the prosecution may try to assert your guilt. The process of discovery allows us to see the entirety of the evidence that the prosecution will rely on to make their case. If we think like the prosecution, we may be able to identify how they will make their case against the accused in addition to any potential weakness or problems with their claims.

The Possibility of a Plea Deal

Although it’s not always offered in a murder case, there is the possibility that the prosecution may come to the table with a plea deal offer. This could involve pleading down to a lesser charge, such as going from murder to manslaughter or possibly accepting guilt to the original charge for specific penalty parameters.

If this may be the right option in your circumstances, your lawyer is responsible for attempting to negotiate the strongest deal they can get from the prosecution. However, this may look different, depending on the specifics of your situation.

Defending Clients in Trial

There are cases, however, when a plea deal may not be offered or it’s not something that the accused wants to accept. If that’s the case, we are prepared to make the strongest defense we can in court and before the jury. At the W. James Payne Law Firm, we are comfortable making a case before the judge, which isn’t true of every criminal defense lawyer.

We understand the nuances involved in putting together a strong defense. Respect for the judge and the process is critical, as this betters the odds that our clients will be given fair consideration. We understand how to speak to the jury and the court in a way that shows proper respect while also offering a fierce defense of our clients. We combine thorough preparation with a relentless courtroom defense, which our clients can attest to.

The courtroom can be unpredictable, and even in the face of the strongest defense, the jury could return a guilty verdict. If that’s the case, it’s our job to continue fighting for our clients at sentencing. While the judge does have guidelines that will need to be followed, they also have some level of discretion. We can present an argument for a more lenient approach from the judge.

Laws Governing Murder Charges

The state of North Carolina has two types of charges for murder: first-degree and second-degree.

  • First-Degree Murder. First-degree murder could be charged for a few different reasons. One is that it was willful, deliberate, and premeditated, which means that the accused must have planned the action. It can also be charged based on the method used, such as torture, lying in wait, or poisoning.

    Additionally, if a killing occurs while the accused is also committing another felony, such as rape or arson, that could also lead to first-degree charges. This charge is a Class A felony, which, at its most severe, can be penalized by a death sentence or life imprisonment without a possibility of parole.

  • Second-Degree Murder. To receive a second-degree murder conviction, someone must also have intentionally killed another person but lacked premeditation. This could potentially even include deaths that result from the unlawful distribution of a controlled substance or actions taken with a reckless disregard for human life.

    Second-degree murder will usually be charged as a Class B1 felony, although there are some circumstances where it may be charged as a B2 felony.

In addition to murder, North Carolina law also allows for charges of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter to be brought. Manslaughter never involves premeditation or planning of any kind. It also results in less severe penalties, although they can still be devastating. Those convicted of this crime often serve time in jail and pay fines, but they do not receive a death sentence.

Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that occurs due to the heat of passion, and it is charged as a Class D felony. Involuntary manslaughter occurs when the death is a result of criminal negligence or reckless conduct, and it results in a Class F Felony.

Possible Defenses Against Murder Charges

When considering the possibility of defending against murder charges or any criminal charges, it’s important to recognize that the burden of proof is on the prosecution. This is the rule that gave rise to the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.”

Therefore, the prosecution will need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, that the accused is guilty of the charges brought against them. There is no burden of proof on the defense, meaning they technically don’t need to prove their innocence to be acquitted.

This doctrine means that the defense should receive an acquittal so long as they can bring about sufficient doubt regarding the guilt of the accused. However, in a more practical sense, this does not mean that a strong defense is built purely on attempting to create doubt around the prosecution’s narrative. The correct strategic approach may vary somewhat, given the circumstances surrounding the accusation, and there are times when a more aggressive approach may be necessary.

The right defense against murder charges must be one that fits with the relevant facts of the case. For instance, if there is clear proof that someone was at the scene of the killing at the time when it occurred, an alibi suggesting that they were elsewhere would not be a sensible defense. An attorney will consider the facts of the situation and identify the most appropriate defensive strategy. There are, however, many different kinds of defensive approaches that could be effective.


Self-defense is an affirmative defense. It argues that the defendant was indeed responsible for the death of another person, but the circumstances made their actions lawful.

North Carolina is one of the states that follow the “Stand Your Ground” principle, which means that self-defense is a particularly common defense against murder charges and one of the most effective. However, to be able to successfully argue self-defense, there are certain criteria that must be met and are defined by North Carolina law. Self-defense may be a justification for the use of deadly force so long as a few criteria are met:

  • The defendant must show that they faced an immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death,
  • To prevent that harm, the use of force was necessary, and
  • The force that was used was proportionate to the threat.

To successfully get an acquittal on the basis of self-defense, the defendant’s lawyer must be able to prove these elements. To some extent, these are judgment calls, as there are not always clear criteria for whether someone was faced with an immediate threat. Generally, the defense will argue that it was a reasonable judgment to make, given the circumstances, or that a reasonable person would have felt the same way and taken the same action.

Proving an Alibi

Although not applicable in many situations, an alibi can be a particularly strong defense when it is credible. If there is credible evidence that the defendant wasn’t at the murder scene at the time when it occurred, then, despite what the prosecution has presented, it may create enough reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury for an acquittal. For instance, there may be security camera footage of the defendant in another town at the time when they were alleged to have committed the murder.

Accidental Killing

This particular defense relies on the assertion that the prosecution has effectively overcharged the defendant. Like other defenses, such as self-defense, this approach acknowledges that the defendant’s actions may have played a role in the death of someone else or maybe even caused it directly. However, if it fails to meet the category of murder, perhaps a charge of manslaughter may be more appropriate.

For a defendant to be convicted of murder, it must be shown that there was intent, that it was the result of recklessness, or that the defendant was criminally negligent. This means that if the defense can demonstrate that reasonable precautions were being taken to prevent harm to the deceased, they may be acquitted.

Defense of Others

Arguing that someone was killed in defense of others is a very similar argument to self-defense. The difference is that others are the would-be victims of the deceased rather than the accused. Successful use of this defense will likely require proving that the defendant reasonably believed that others were facing immediate harm and that the use of force was necessary and proportional to the threat.

Mistaken Identity

There are times when the prosecution’s case may rely heavily on suspect evidence to identify the defendant as the guilty party. For instance, eyewitness testimony has been shown to be unreliable, particularly when the witness has no or little prior history with the accused.

Attacking the credibility of this evidence, as well as possibly presenting counter-evidence and witness testimony that disprove the prosecution’s witness, can be effective in building a case of mistaken identity. This can be a particularly effective tactic when paired with another defensive strategy, such as an alibi.

Involuntary Intoxication

Although not particularly common, there are times when someone has been unknowingly drugged or made to consume intoxicants and killed someone as a result. Although they are typically still responsible for their actions when intoxicated, that may not be the case if that intoxication came involuntarily. It can be challenging to prove, but if it can be shown that the defendant became intoxicated due to someone else’s wrongdoing, that could result in an acquittal.


Similarly to accidental killing, a defense of provocation makes the assertion that the defendant has been effectively “over-charged.” This argues that the defendant’s crime more appropriately fits the category of manslaughter. The defendant must have acted in a heat of passion that any reasonable person would have felt, given the provocation of the other party.

However, it’s important to realize that this defense is typically only effective if the response is immediate, and there was no period of time that could be categorized as a “cooling-off” period.

Challenging Evidence

One defensive strategy is to weaken the prosecution’s case by challenging the evidence that they hope to present. This is something that begins in the pre-trial period, when your lawyer may motion to have certain evidence kept out of the trial. However, this is only possible when there is something unlawful about how the evidence was collected.

For instance, evidence that was collected in violation of your Constitutional Rights may be disallowed on those grounds. Weakening the prosecution’s case in this way could make it more difficult for them to prove the defendant’s guilt. Conversely, it could also make it easier for the jury to have a reasonable doubt.

Why a Plea Deal May Be the Right Option

Though not guaranteed, there are some murder cases where the prosecution may be interested in a plea deal. For the prosecution, this allows them to get a conviction while also taking some cases out of the often overcrowded legal system and not burdening the courts with a lengthy trial. The prosecution, however, is not the only party that benefits from a plea deal, as the defendant may as well.

The specifics of a plea deal may differ from case to case. Generally, though, a plea deal will often involve the defendant accepting guilt to lesser charges or for an agreed-upon penalty. This means avoiding the worst possible outcomes if a trial were to go against the defendant.

While many people instinctively wish to go to court, mount a defense, and get an acquittal, it’s important to be realistic about the evidence that could be used against you and the realistic possibility of mounting a successful defense. This is especially critical in a murder case, which often involves an emotional component. Members of the jury and the judge could have a strong desire to see that murder is severely penalized.

When weighing the possibility of taking a plea deal, it’s important to understand the full scope of what you could be facing if the court were to go to trial. Your lawyer can attempt to negotiate the strongest plea deal they are able to on your behalf. However, they will also be able to give you their honest assessment of what you may be facing, given the circumstances.

This is one of the reasons why it’s important that you work with a lawyer you trust. You should know that they are being clear and honest with you when they offer their legal advice and explain the risks of going to trial. They can’t make the decision for you, but they can be helpful as you make your own.

What to Do if You’re Being Investigated or Are Arrested on Murder Charges

If you find out that you’re being investigated for murder charges or possibly even arrested, it’s important to realize that how you handle the situation can often have a significant impact on your case. There are a few things you could do that could have a severely negative impact on your case. That’s why it’s important to remember what steps to take.

The first thing to remember is to remain calm. You won’t want to act out of emotion, particularly if you are being arrested. It’s reasonable to be frustrated, confused, and angry. However, when acting out of those emotions, it’s also easy to do or say something that you’ll regret.

Whether it’s resisting arrest or saying something that could later be used against you, you should avoid these issues. There will be a time and opportunity for you to present a defense for yourself. It’s advised to trust the process and wait until the appropriate opportunity presents itself.

The next important thing you need to remember is your rights. If an investigator wants to speak with you, you have a right to silence and to avoid self-incrimination. You are not required to answer their questions related to the crime. Your rights also protect you against unlawful searches and seizures, so it’s important to ask for a warrant.

If you have questions about these issues, a criminal defense attorney can help. If you get news that you are being investigated for a murder, remember to contact a lawyer. Similarly, if you are arrested, it’s critical that you ask for your lawyer and don’t say anything until they arrive.

Officers are trained at identifying and even coaxing out something that could be used against you in court. You will be better off remaining quiet until your lawyer arrives. Even what seems like casual small talk could be used to get you to let your guard down. Your lawyer, however, can help protect your rights and begin defending you.

We Defend Against Murder Charges in Wilmington

Nothing is more serious than murder charges. The penalties are the most significant that the law allows for, with a first-degree conviction potentially resulting in a death sentence. Those faced with these charges deserve a strong defense. They need a Wilmington murder attorney who understands how to explore every avenue and make their client’s strongest case before the court.

The W. James Payne Law Firm takes on some of the most challenging criminal defense cases, including murder charges. W. James Payne has been defending against these kinds of crimes in the Wilmington area for more than thirty years. This extensive experience provides a firm foundation that allows us to build a strong defense for our clients.

Whether against state or federal charges, we are always prepared to relentlessly defend our clients’ rights and interests. If a plea deal is possible, and this seems like the right option, we negotiate for the optimal deal. However, if the case is going to trial, we are always ready to put forth a fierce defense for our clients. If you or someone you know is facing murder charges or even being investigated, then contact our offices today.