The graduate student who admitted to killing a Georgetown law student in a drunken rage last month is hoping to reduce his charges – and the law may be on his side.
The attorney for 24-year-old Rahul Gupta told a Maryland courtroom last week that the stabbing was a “hot-blooded response to some type of provocation” rather than an intentional attack. Four criminal defense attorneys told The Hatchet that the court may favor a manslaughter plea over a murder charge.
Gupta was charged with second-degree murder after he told police Oct. 13 that he had killed his high school friend Mark Waugh because he thought Waugh and his girlfriend were involved romantically behind his back. But a prosecutor told a District Court judge last week that he believed Gupta should be charged with first-degree murder, which would require the state’s legal team to prove premeditation.
For a jury to find Gupta guilty of second-degree murder, prosecutors would have to show that he intended to kill Waugh or cause such serious physical harm that Waugh would likely die. A second-degree murder conviction in Maryland carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.
But criminal defense attorney David Benowitz said the circumstances of that night could reduce the charges.
“Catching your girlfriend or wife cheating is kind of the classic mitigator that you learn about in law school, which potentially could mitigate from murder down to manslaughter,” Benowitz, a 1995 GW Law School alumnus, said. “But what really matters are the facts of the case specifically.”
A person who commits manslaughter in Maryland faces a maximum of 10 years in prison or two years in a local correctional facility, a fine not exceeding $500, or both.
Roland Lee, a Maryland attorney and former prosecutor, agreed that if Gupta’s defense shows that he acted spontaneously in a “heat of passion,” he could be given a manslaughter charge.
But the jury will also read officers’ reports that Gupta confessed to stabbing his friend that night, telling officers, “My girl was cheating with my buddy. I walked in on them cheating and I killed my buddy.”
Lee said the statements were “very damaging” against Gupta and would likely play into a jury’s decision. But he added that the defense could try to use Gupta and Waugh’s friendship to its advantage, arguing that Gupta would have no reason to intentionally kill his close friend.
In court last week, Gupta’s lawyer, Philip Armstrong, stressed that everyone who was at the Silver Spring apartment that night was heavily intoxicated.
“Everybody agrees that everybody was drunk. Everybody agrees that everybody was best friends,” Armstrong told the courtroom.
But attorneys pointed out that the defense could not use voluntary intoxication in itself as an excuse in Gupta’s case.
The reports from Gupta and his girlfriend, who is also a GW alumna, are also conflicting.
Gupta told officers that his girlfriend’s screams had awoken him, and when he turned toward her, he saw Waugh “bleeding out” on the floor against a bed. But the girlfriend said she woke up to Gupta yelling for her to call 911.
“That’s helpful for the defense, too,” Maryland attorney Drew Cochran said. “If he’s really just an evil person, why is he telling her to call 911?”
G. Randolph Rice, Jr., a criminal lawyer in Maryland, said the defense would have to show that Waugh’s actions provoked Gupta’s rage, and he killed Waugh before those emotions could cool off. He said it could work if Gupta was “under the duress of seeing his girlfriend” cheating on him and Waugh was the person who prompted that outrage.
But he said he couldn’t remember a time when a defendant entirely escaped a guilty verdict because the person “was enraged or mentally incapable.”
Rice said police officers charge suspects with “what they think is appropriate” at the the time of the arrest, but those charges could change or the state could tack on additional charges as a case advances to Circuit Court, which hears felonies.