The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Homicide, the act of killing another individual, is one of the most serious offenses a person can commit to human life. However, when talking about criminal homicide, it can be split into two distinct categories: murder and manslaughter. The difference between the two is based on the mindset of the killer at the time of the crime. 

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While murder refers to the malicious killing of another person in the heat of passion, manslaughter is related to either unintentional or non-premeditated killings. This small but important distinction means that offenders will receive different sentences depending on the type of homicide. For any criminal defense attorney working on a homicide case, knowing the “manslaughter vs murder” difference and the associated sentences with each is key for formulating an effective criminal defense strategy within an attorney client relationship. 

Definition of Murder

The laws for murder vary from state to state. However, no matter where in the United States the crime takes place, the illegal killings must have been done with malice aforethought for it to be considered murder. This could mean that the murder was intentional and premeditated, though not always. If someone intentionally commits a dangerous act towards human life with no regard for the risks they are posing to other people and kills someone in the process, this too is considered murder, even though there was no previous planning involved.

To distinguish between these two different types of murder, there are different degrees a defendant may be charged with: 

  • The first degree murder—any killing that is both intentional and premeditated; or 
  • The second degree murder—a killing that is with malice aforethought but is not premeditated, such as killing a person in the middle of a fight. 

On top of these two degrees is felony murder. This is when a person dies as a result of another dangerous and serious felony, such as arson, rape, burglary, or robbery. Unlike murder in the first and second degree, felony murder does not require intent to kill—there only needs to be intent for the predicate felony. For example, if three men were committing a burglary and one of them was armed and shot and killed someone at the scene, all three men would be charged with murder. This crime is typically given the same punishment as a murder in the first degree.

Definition of Homicide

As mentioned, both manslaughter and murder are forms of homicide, which involves one person killing another person. So, if both refer to the act of illegal killing, what is the difference between murder and manslaughter? The answer is in the mindset of the offender while committing the act of a person’s death. 

Definition of Manslaughter

Manslaughter also refers to the act of killing someone, but without malice aforethought. Manslaughter can never be premeditated, as that would make it murder. However, manslaughter can be either an intentional or unintentional killing. 

Degrees of Manslaughter

To more clearly define the two classifications of manslaughter, it can be divided into two subcategories—voluntary manslaughter (intentional) and involuntary manslaughter (unintentional).

Voluntary manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when an individual willfully kills someone but with no premeditation. The crime is intentional, but it is a result of being strongly provoked. For example, a husband who has just discovered that his wife has been having an affair may lose control of his emotions and kill his wife in the heat of the moment. This is similar to second-degree murder. However, for the offense to be classified as manslaughter, there has to be a clear provocation and emotional connection. If an accidental death resulted from a bar fight, which lacks the emotional connection, the crime would be classed as murder in the second degree rather than voluntary manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter comes with the most lenient punishment of all the homicide crimes. In these cases, the murder is an unintentional killing with no premeditation. The death results from either reckless disregard or criminal negligence. For example, a person who recklessly discharges a firearm into a crowd of people and kills someone may be charged with involuntary manslaughter. The intent to kill is not present, but the behavior is clearly irresponsible and has a high risk of injury or death.

Another example of involuntary manslaughter involves drunk driving. If an accident occurs in which a person dies, the intoxicated driver may be charged with involuntary manslaughter. However, some US states may classify these crimes as “vehicular manslaughter,” which specifically pertains to motor vehicle accidents. All states, excluding Alaska, Montana, and Arizona, have vehicular manslaughter statutes.

Murder vs. Manslaughter vs. Homicide

The difference between manslaughter and murder charges lies in the defendant’s intentions and premeditation. The order of severity from highest to lowest is: 

  1. First-degree murder; 
  2. Second-degree murder; 
  3. Voluntary manslaughter; and 
  4. Involuntary manslaughter. 

The higher the degree of intent, the worse the punishment. Therefore, the distinction not only lies in the definition but also in the sentences that are handed out. First-degree murders that are both planned and intentional are seen as the most severe crime and have the most severe punishments, whereas an accidental involuntary manslaughter charge carries the least severe penalties.

The circumstances of each case also hold weight on the sentence. Aggregate factors, such as having previous criminal convictions or murdering a member of law enforcement or military, can make a case more severe. On the other hand, mitigating factors can lessen the severity of a sentence. These include the defendant having no previous criminal history, being willing to take responsibility for his or her actions, and showing true remorse for the crime. There are also often different criminal charges for juveniles or if the person’s death resulted from an act of self-defense.

Even with the aggregate and mitigating factors considered, the exact homicide charges handed out for each crime will depend on the criminal justice systems of each state, or the federal laws if it is a federal crime. For example, in Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, and Tennessee, a defendant found guilty of first-degree murder with aggregating circumstances could be given the death penalty. According to the US Department of Justice, the death penalty can also be applied at the federal level. On the other hand, the same crime could receive a life prison sentence without parole in Colorado, Delaware, or Massachusetts.

Difference between murder and manslaughter

The difference of murder vs manslaughter lies in the attacker’s thought process both before and during the act. While all murders have malice aforethought and are intentional, manslaughter cases are the result of either being strongly provoked, the heat of passion or an accident that kills another person.

The distinction between these two types of homicide lies not only in the definition but also in the sentences given to convicted offenders. First-degree murder charges carry the most severe punishment of life imprisonment or death. 

Homicide vs manslaughter 

Regarding manslaughter vs homicide, there is a sliding spectrum of charges through capital murder in the second degree, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. However, even if case specifics are identical, the laws of each state will determine the judge’s final sentencing.

Murder vs homicide

A murder is a homicide that has been committed with malice aforethought. This does not necessarily mean that the killing was made maliciously but, rather, that it was committed with the intention of being malicious. Malice aforethought may be thought of as proving an unjust death.

Sentences for Manslaughter and Murder

All states punish murder with imprisonment (often for many years), but the exact punishment varies from state to state. Generally, first-degree murder carries a sentence of decades to life in prison (with or without parole). Second-degree murder almost always carries a lesser punishment than first-degree murder (less than life in prison). Approximately half of the states and the federal government permit the death penalty for aggravated first-degree murder.


If you are facing a first degree murger charge or any other degrees of homicide charges yourself, consider getting in touch with a criminal defense attorney. Your freedom, future, and rights are at stake, and finding a professional to fight in your corner might drastically reduce the charges or the sentence when you establish an attorney client relationship immediately with a legal professional. Or you can reach out to criminal law offices.


What’s the longest sentence for manslaughter?

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. Judges may impose a variety of sentences based on the particular case and state laws. These can include prison sentences to be served immediately, suspended prison sentences, or community service sentences for manslaughter vs murder.

Is homicide the same as manslaughter?

Murder is usually considered to be a more serious crime than manslaughter, but they are both forms of homicide. There are two types of manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is the act when a person kills another person when under extreme provocation or under the heat of passion.

What’s is manslaughter vs second degree murder?

A person who commits second-degree murder understands the consequences of his or her actions and kills someone without premeditation. The act of voluntary manslaughter occurs when a reasonable person becomes emotionally disturbed or is perceived as being motivated by passion or impulse.

How to protect your loved ones in case you die?

Drafting a will. This is the first step you need to do before something unexpected happens. For instance, this Delaware will template will help you to get your will ready in minutes. However, in case you feel the danger of murder, you should directly notify police and take care of your safety.

Article by Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Legal Writer at Lawrina. Yevheniia browses through the most interesting and relevant news in the legal and legaltech world and collects them on Lawrina’s blog. Also, Yevheniia composes various how-to guides on legaltech, plus writes product articles and release notes for Loio, AI-powered contract review and drafting software.

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