When the medical examiner on a television drama announced that a death had been ruled a homicide, I used to think homicide was the same as murder. I now know that the words are not synonymous.
Homicide is the killing of a human being by another human being. The word derives from the Latin compound homicida, which combines homo (man) with the verb caedere (to kill).
Depending upon circumstances, a homicide may or may not be considered murder.
The variety of state and national laws makes it difficult to attach specific definitions to words that represent the different kinds of homicide. What follows is a general treatment of these terms.
Murder: the deliberate and unlawful killing of a human being.
In British law, no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder. US law distinguishes between “first degree” and “second degree” murder. What constitutes these degrees, however, differs from state to state.
Note: Murder is a word of Germanic origin. In antiquity, when raiding and blood feuds were common, the word murder denoted a killing done in secret, as opposed to homicides done in the open with no attempt at concealment.
First Degree Murder: a murder that, because of the circumstances surrounding it, deserves either capital or severe punishment.
Any premeditated killing that involves planning is first degree murder.
Second Degree Murder: a malicious killing that was not premeditated.
This kind of murder is not planned, but results from an angry confrontation or from depraved indifference to human life. One example is that of the neighbor who goes next door merely to complain about a barking dog but finishes by killing the dog’s owner. Another example would be that of a manufacturer who discovers that a product can cause death, but fails to recall it.
Felony Murder Doctrine: Any death that occurs during or results from the commission of a felony is first degree murder, and all participants in the felony can be charged with and found guilty of first degree murder, even if only one of them actually did the killing.
Manslaughter: Etymologically, manslaughter is the English version of homicide. It derives from an Old English compound that combines man with the OE verb slaeht (act of killing). The Modern English verb slay is related.
Unlike homicide, which refers in general to the act of one person killing another, manslaughter refers to unpremeditated killing.
Voluntary Manslaughter: the act of killing in the heat of passion. The usual example of this is the man or woman who finds a spouse in bed with another partner.
Note: The difference between voluntary manslaughter and second degree murder hinges upon provocation. With first degree murder, the killer came with the intention to kill. With second degree murder, the killer decided on the spot. Either way, the killing is seen as malicious. The legal encyclopedia at Nolo explains that the charge of voluntary manslaughter is “a concession to human weakness.” The killing may have been intentional, but the provocation was such that could produce a similar emotional reaction in “any reasonable person.”
Involuntary Manslaughter: the act of killing someone unintentionally while engaged in a non-felony. For example, killing someone while driving recklessly is involuntary manslaughter. A burglar who, in surprise at being interrupted, fatally pushes someone down the stairs would probably be charged with involuntary manslaughter—as long as he hasn’t brought a gun to the burglary.
I repeat: These descriptions are very general. Anyone in need of precise definitions must consult a lawyer and local statutes.