Homicide, Murder and Manslaughter

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Homicide, Murder and Manslaughter”

  1. Since the point of this article is to distinguish the different terms for killing, this line is rather out of place:

    “Any premeditated killing that involves planning is first degree murder.”

    No, MURDER that is premeditated and involves planning (‘malice aforethought’) is first degree. Soldiers and police snipers, for example, sometimes need to premeditate and plan killings, but that’s not first degree murder.

  2. “Any premeditated killing that involves planning is first degree murder.”

    Yes, it is better to say premeditated unlawful killing (or murder), as the unlawful requirement is contained in murder. And we have to be careful with the word “planning”. Premeditation in the law can entail a lot less that what would generically be considered planning. A split-second decision is still premeditation so long as it was in fact a decision. IOW, if the perpetrator had the chance to stop, even briefly, and didn’t, that can be considered premeditated. So basically you can eliminate that qualification and just say, “Any premeditated murder is first degree murder”. If it’s lawful, it’s not murder (as per ApK’s point), and if it’s premeditated it includes the minimal necessary level of planning.

    Other “details”

    “First Degree Murder: a murder that, because of the circumstances surrounding it, deserves either capital or severe punishment.”

    First degree murder is distinguished by its premeditation. Capital murder (in some states), or first degree murder which capital punishment can attach, is first degree murder with the addition of aggravating circumstances. That is what is required for the death penalty in states where it exists. Those “aggravations” vary by jurisdiction.

    The Felony Murder Rule exists in most American states. I am pretty sure it does not exist in Canadian law, and it no longer exists in British law (never did in Scottish law). It basically says that the commission of a felony qualifies as intent for first degree murder in and of itself. So anyone committing or furthering a felony (at least a violent felony) is criminally culpable for a death that results from that felony even if he did not have any specific “intent” in a non-legal sense to kill anyone and even if he was not the perpetrator of the actual killing.

    In modern British law serious crimes are actually classed as “indictable offenses”. They don’t use the concept of felony anymore.

  3. Whether the law works this way or not, here is how the law SHOULD work if everyone had a good head on their shoulders and made laws that correspond with common sense:

    murder: the general definition should be deliberate homicide without exculpatory factors (i.e. self-defense or defense of the lives of those around you would be exculpatory thus would preclude a charge of murder)

    1st degree murder – premeditated murder, i.e. murder that is pre-planned for example a killer decides to kill someone, lies in wait for them to arrive and kills them.

    2nd degree murder – unpremeditated murder, e.g. killing someone deliberately but without forethought, for example beating someone so badly that any reasonable person would assume it would be fatal, when the person doing the killing originally intended to simply beat someone up (assault and battery) but let themselves get carried away and took it way too far, resulting in the victim’s death. Or for example someone is carrying a handgun that he carries every day and one day comes home to find his wife in bed with the neighbor so he shoots him.

    Manslaughter – the unintentional killing of another human being when no homicide was ever intended, e.g. driving drunk and running over a child when the driver didn’t even see the child because he was drunk and not paying attention.

    “felony murder” – should not be on the books at all as no intention of homicide was present, e.g. a person robbing a store at gunpoint accidentally discharges the gun and shoots the clerk to death. This seems to be considered “felony murder” as the perpetrator killed someone (albeit accidentally) during the commission of a felony. This is a law that ascribes the same level of seriousness to the killing as if it was intended. This person should be charged with manslaughter in addition to armed robbery, not armed robbery and “felony murder.”

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