Can You Be Charged with Murder if You Accidentally Kill Someone in a Fight in Utah?

Fighting may not be model behavior, but no one enters a scuffle intending to actually kill anyone. However, that doesn’t mean it never happens by accident. If you get into a fistfight and the other person later dies from their injuries, could you be accused of committing murder? Or would the lack of intent to kill the victim prevent criminal charges from being filed? Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson explains how assault can turn into homicide.

Can Assault Charges be Elevated to Homicide?

You might be surprised to learn that state law creates no fewer than eight distinct homicide offenses in Utah:

  • Murder
  • Aggravated Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Negligent Homicide
  • Automobile Homicide (Vehicular Homicide)
  • Automobile Homicide Involving Cell Phones
  • Child Abuse Homicide
  • Homicide by Assault

There are many different reasons a defendant could be charged with murder or aggravated murder, which is the only capital offense in Utah. One of these reasons is “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] the death of another [person],” which obviously excludes accidentally causing death. A person could be charged with murder for accidentally causing death by doing something “clearly dangerous to human life,” but throwing a punch doesn’t meet that description either, because no reasonable person expects a fistfight to be deadly.

That being said, there are still ways a person in this scenario could be charged with other types of homicide. The offense of homicide by assault (Utah Code § 76-5-209), which is charged when “a person causes the death of another while intentionally or knowingly attempting… to do bodily injury,” is probably the most obvious example. Homicide by assault is a third degree felony. Maximum penalties include five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Manslaughter (Utah Code § 76-5-205), a second degree felony subject to 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000, is another possible charge. In Utah, a person can be arrested for manslaughter if they “recklessly cause the death of another [person].” In the context of criminal law, behaving “recklessly” means doing something with disregard for the safety of others (such as excessive speeding while driving). In fact, a real-world example of precisely this scenario is unfolding in Utah’s courts right now.

Utah Man Charged with Manslaughter After Fistfight Injuries Prove Fatal

On August 29, 24-year-old Cole Pedersen of Herriman was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail after fighting with Blake Burningham, also 24 years old.

The fight began after Pedersen picked up his sister, only to discover she had just been physically assaulted by Burningham, who was her boyfriend at the time. Pedersen later drove to a residence on the 5900 block of West Moon Shadow Drive, where he allegedly punched Burningham in the head.

After Burningham fell to the ground, Pedersen allegedly continued to strike him until he was restrained by Burningham’s brother. According to Unified Police detective Jared Richardson, “Pedersen delivered a few more punches to Burningham on the ground before Pedersen was pulled off by Burningham’s brother.” Detective Richardson added, “This is one of those traumatic situations where I am sure it was not intended to go this far.”

According to court records, Unified Police Department personnel stated that “Burningham was unconscious and never resisted or fought back.” By the time officers arrived on the scene, shortly after 1:00 A.M., a neighbor was already attempting to perform CPR on the unconscious Burningham. Despite being rushed to the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, where he was placed on life support, Burningham died the following day.

According to the state medical examiner’s office, the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. The medical examiner noted bruising to Burningham’s mouth, head, and the left side of his face, as well as a broken nose.

Pedersen, who was initially arrested for aggravated assault, is now being charged with manslaughter in Burningham’s death. The charges were filed in 3rd District Court.

“It makes me really sad and it breaks my heart to say that. But my son is dead. My son didn’t even have time to throw a punch,” said mother Kim Burningham, who expressed hope that Pedersen would be charged with murder. Kim Burningham also states that her son did not physically strike Pedersen’s sister, though the pair occasionally argued “[like] any other couple.”

Pedersen was convicted of underage drinking, a Class B misdemeanor, in 2010. In 2012, Burningham was convicted of three counts of sexual battery for having intercourse with a 14-year-old girl.

This recent event is a clear example of how accidentally killing someone can lead to felony homicide charges. If someone you love was arrested for assault in Salt Lake County, you need an experienced Sandy Homicide defense attorney on your side. To set up a free, confidential legal consultation, call criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287.