Homicide Law Explained: What is Homicide?
Though the legal term “homicide” is used to define any killing of a person by another person, not all homicide law is created equal. While some homicides are considered legal, such as killing in the name of self-defense or with justifiable cause by a police officer, other types of homicides like murder or manslaughter, are unlawful crimes which are punishable by prison time and, in some cases, the death penalty. While unlawful homicide is always a serious offense, the severity of punishment by the offender is dependent upon a variety of factors, namely whether the offense falls closer to manslaughter or murder on the homicide law spectrum.
Murder Vs. Manslaughter- What’s the Difference?
When discussing homicide, some people use the terms “murder” and “manslaughter” interchangeably; however, this is not accurate. While both terms are used to define types of homicide, there is a distinct difference between manslaughter and murder. By explaining the various degrees of homicide from manslaughter to murder, it is possible to gauge where a particular homicide law case falls on the spectrum and predict the severity of punishment if the defendant is convicted.
Murder is defined under the common law as an intentional killing of another person that was not legally justified and committed with “malice aforethought.” This means that a person being tried for murder intended to kill the individual without justifiable cause. Malice aforethought can also apply if the killer intentionally inflicts bodily harm upon the victim, which ultimately results in death (for instance, if a person shoots another person in the leg and that person eventually dies in the hospital as a result of his gunshot wound). Additionally, malice aforethought can pertain to reckless behavior that shows extreme carelessness and disregard for life which results in the victim’s death (for example, a show of road rage that results in an ultimately fatal collision).
Further important distinctions apply within the contemporary statutes for murder, such as the difference between first- and second-degree murder. While rules vary slightly from state to state as to what constitutes a first-degree murder, common circumstances include deliberate, premeditated conduct, meaning the killer had time and forethought to plan the murder, and whether the killing occurs while a dangerous felony is being committed. The latter circumstance, sometimes referred to as “felony murder”, would apply to a criminal who, in the midst of committing a felony, kills someone in the process. For example, if someone stole a car and then hit a pedestrian who was in his way during his getaway, this would be a felony murder, and likely qualify as a first-degree murder charge. Another circumstance which almost immediately classifies the killing as a first-degree murder is if the suspect used a bomb or other explosive device to intentionally kill another person or people.
Other murder cases where premeditation is either absent or unable to be proven fall into the second-degree murder category. While still extremely serious and punishable by jail time, second-degree murder suspects are generally viewed as less dangerous than first-degree murder suspects. Many states have mandatory minimum jail sentences for murder, but the mandatory minimum for first-degree murder is almost always higher than it is for second-degree murder. Additionally, first-degree murder suspects may also be sentenced to the death penalty, depending on their individual state laws. In states that do not have a death penalty, suspects convicted of first-degree murder may end up with a sentence of life without parole, whereas second-degree murder convicts are usually sentenced to a term of a certain number of years, and nearly always are eligible for parole.
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Manslaughter, on the other hand, while still an unlawful killing, lacks the principle of malice aforethought. This means that a person being tried for manslaughter is believed to have acted without premeditation or intent. There are two main types of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter, also referred to as a “heat of passion” crime, is characterized by a person killing another person after becoming provoked under circumstances that could easily anger any rational person. For instance, if a person found out her spouse was having an affair and was provoked into a heat of passion that resulted in her killing the other woman, this would be an example of voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, refers to a homicide that has been caused unintentionally by reckless or negligent behavior. For example, if a person accidentally knocks a heavy lead vase off a windowsill right as a person is walking underneath the window, this could be considered involuntary manslaughter. Due to the accidental nature of the homicide, involuntary manslaughter is often not punished as severely as other forms of homicide; however, your attorney will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the killing was, in fact, unintentional and without malice or provocation.
If you require further explanation of homicide or to schedule an initial consultation with the experienced criminal attorneys at Rodriguez Interiano Hanson & Rodgers, contact us at 509-783-5551. We work with clients in and around Kennewick, WA to provide the best legal counsel and representation for the best possible outcome to your case. Click here to contact us today!