Homicide, the act of killing other individuals, is one of the most serious offenses a person can commit. 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. While murder refers to the malicious killing of another person, manslaughter refers to either unintentional or non-premediated death. This small but important distinction means offenders will receive different sentences depending on the type of homicide.
For any criminal defense attorney working on a homicide case, knowing the difference between manslaughter and murder is key for formulating an effective strategy. In this article, we will discuss the difference between these crimes in more detail and the associated sentences with each.
Murder vs. Manslaughter vs. Homicide
As mentioned, both manslaughter and murder are forms of homicide, which is where one person kills another individual. So, if both refer to the act of killing, what is the difference between murder and manslaughter? The answer is in the mindset of the offender while they commit the act. Below we have defined each for a better understanding of the different types of homicide.
Definition of Murder
The laws for murder vary between each US state. However, no matter where in the United States the crime takes place, the unlawful killing has to be 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 with no regard for the risks they are posing to other people and ends up killing someone, 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: (1) murder of the first degree and (2) murder of the second degree. First-degree murder refers to any killing that is both intentional and premeditated. On the other hand, second-degree murder is a killing that is with malice aforethought but is not premeditated. An example of this could be killing a person in the middle of a fight.
On top of these two degrees, there is also felony murder. This is where someone dies as a result of another dangerous and violent felony that has been committed, such as arson, rape, burglary, or robbery. Unlike the murder of the first and second degree, it does not require intent to kill – there just needs to be intent for the predicate felony. For example, say three men were committing a burglary. If one of the felons was armed and ended up shooting and killing someone on the scene, all three men would be charged with murder. This is typically given the same punishment as a murder of the first degree.
Definition of Manslaughter
Manslaughter also refers to the act of killing someone, but this time without malice aforethought. It can never be premeditated, as that would make it a murder. However, manslaughter can both be an intentional or unintentional killing. To better define these two classifications, it is again split into two separate sub-categories: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter occurs when an individual willfully kills someone but with no premeditation. The death is intentional but a result of being strongly provoked. For example, if a husband had just discovered his wife had been having an affair, he 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. For instance, if an accidental death resulted from a bar fight, this would be classed as the murder of the second degree, rather than voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter comes with the least harsh of all homicide sentences. In these cases, the murder is an unintentional killing with no premeditation. The death results from either reckless disregard or criminal negligence. For example, if someone recklessly discharges a firearm into a crowd of people and someone dies, that is involuntary manslaughter. The intent to kill is not present, but the behavior is clearly irresponsible and has a high risk of injury or death.
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Another example of involuntary manslaughter would be driving while intoxicated and having a road traffic accident in which someone gets killed. However, some US states may classify these crimes as “vehicular homicide,” which specifically pertains to road traffic accidents. All states, excluding Alaska, Montana, and Arizona, have vehicular homicide statutes.
Sentences for Manslaughter and Murder
The difference between manslaughter and murder 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. In other words, the higher the degree of intent, the worse the punishment. Therefore, the distinction between the two not only lies in the definition but also in the sentences 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 specifics of each case also hold weight on the type of sentence offered. Aggregate factors can make a case more severe and include having previous criminal convictions or murdering a member of law enforcement or military. 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 the actions, and showing true remorse for the killing. There are also often different charges for juveniles, or if the killing was 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 jurisdictional laws 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 sentence without parole in Colorado, Delaware, and Massachusetts.
The difference between murder and manslaughter lies in the attacker’s thought process both before and during the killing. While all murders are with malice aforethought and are intentional, manslaughter cases are either the result of being strongly provoked or the accidental killing of another person.
The distinction between these two types of homicide lies not only in the definition but also in the charges given to convicted offenders. First-degree murder charges carry the most severe punishment of life imprisonment or death. There is then a sliding spectrum of charges through the murder of the second degree, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. However, even if case specifics are identical, it is the laws of each state that will determine the judge’s final sentencing.
If you are facing homicide charges yourself, always get in touch with a criminal defense lawyer. Your freedom, future, and rights are at stake, and appointing a professional to fight in your corner can drastically reduce the charges you are given.