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What is Homicide?

The crime of homicide occurs when someone unjustifiably takes another person’s life. Homicide charges fall into several subcategories; the circumstances and severity of the defendant’s actions determine what charges may apply. The different levels of homicide crimes are extremely varied. Depending on the jurisdiction and whether it was a state or federal offense, penalties can range from six months in prison for involuntary manslaughter up to the death penalty for first degree murder.

What are the Charges and Penalties for Homicide?

Homicides can range from a planned, detailed, intentional killings to negligent accidents. Typically, a homicide charge falls under the following categories:


Murder is usually defined as the intentional, unexcused killing of another person. If someone follows through with an action for the purpose of taking another person’s life, knowing that it will take a person’s life, or knowing that it could take a persons life but is done anyway in total disregard for the potential consequence, they could be charged with murder. Specific degrees of murder charges include:

  • First degree murder most often involves a premeditated, planned, and intentional killing. It can also apply if the crime was not premeditated if the victim was a certain type of government official or law enforcement officer; in these cases, the courts may refer to it as either first degree murder or capital murder. Average penalties for first degree murder charges typically start at a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, to life imprisonment, or to the death penalty.
  • Second degree murder typically applies to killings that weren’t planned in advance, but were done with the knowledge or purpose intent of taking someone’s life. Some forms of reckless conduct that result in someone’s death are charged as second degree murder, also known as “depraved heart” murders because of the defendant’s apparent extreme indifference to human life. Criminal penalties for a second degree murder conviction often have a minimum 15-year prison sentence up to life in prison.
  • Felony murder, in jurisdictions that prosecute for it, is a penalty enhancer that elevates certain lesser homicides to murder if the defendant unintentionally and unpreparedly killed someone while in the process of committing an unrelated felony. For example, if an armed robber never wanted or planned to actually hurt anyone but accidentally shoots and kills a cashier during the robbery, the shooter could be charged under the felony murder rule. They didn’t have the intent that’s usually required for a murder charge, but charges may be elevated because the death happened during the commission of a dangerous felony.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter, or manslaughter in some jurisdictions, usually applies to homicides that were either accidental, but reckless, or intentional, but adequately provoked.

  • Reckless manslaughter occurs when a person does an inherently dangerous act that unintentionally takes someone’s life and the defendant knew their conduct could kill someone, but still acted with flagrant disregard for others’ safety. This can include accidentally killing someone in an intentional attack that was only meant to hurt them.
  • Heat of passion manslaughter, or “temporary insanity” killings, are adequately provoked homicides that tend to arise when someone violently lashes out after they were instigated past an understandable breaking point. A parent who discovers someone has hurt their child, immediately flies into a fit of rage, and then promptly finds and kills the perpetrator, could be eligible for a voluntary manslaughter charge instead of a first-degree murder charge. Killing in the heat of passion is not considered a justified killing (proportional self-defense is an example of a justifiable homicide instead of a criminal offense). Instead, it’s considered a reasonable cause for diminished thought and impulse control that mitigates the crime. The offender is still guilty of an inexcusable crime, but they are considered less of a danger to society because they acted with less malice and disregard for life than someone who planned a homicide with a clear head.

Depending on the state, manslaughter may be further classified by varying degrees (first degree manslaughter, second degree manslaughter, etc.). Based on the trial court’s jurisdiction, the circumstances of the criminal offense, and the severity of the offense, those convicted of voluntary manslaughter typically face a prison sentence of 3 to 10 years.

Involuntary Manslaughter and Negligent Homicide

Involuntary manslaughter, called negligent homicide in some jurisdictions, occurs when a defendant’s careless act causes another person’s death. This type of criminal charge often involves a person taking unreasonable risks while unaware of the danger they’re creating, but it’s a danger they should have been aware of. Deadly car accidents caused by a distracted driver may fall under an involuntary manslaughter charge.

Jail time for involuntary manslaughter convictions can range from a couple of months to a couple of years.

How Does the Court Prove Homicide?

When trying any kind of homicide case, the court will need to prove that a defendant’s actions caused the victim’s death. Defenses against these claims can include alibis for the time and location of the crime, or perhaps that whatever the defendant’s actions were, they were not what caused the victim to die.

The prosecution must also prove the defendant’s intent in a homicide case, as that plays a significant roll in how severe the charges will be. Defense options may include challenging evidence of premeditation, demonstrating a qualifying provocation to change a murder charge to a manslaughter charge, or claims of self-defense.

Eye-witness testimony, phone and search engine records, forensics, and expert-witness testimony are common forms of evidence that the opposing side may use to try and prove a defendant’s guilt.

Homicide trials are jury trials by default, unless a defendant has reason to request a bench trial. The jury would need to find that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the court to hand down a sentence; this doesn’t mean they can acquit because of any highly improbable, but technically possible, alternative explanations, but with sufficient questions to the defendant’s case the jury could render a not guilty verdict.

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Attorney for Homicide?

Homicide charges are among the most severe criminal charges a person can face and can carry the harshest possible penalties. Setting up a strong defense is essential for preventing a life sentence in prison, or even the death penalty.

Hiring a criminal defense lawyer with experience in homicide cases could improve the odds of a positive outcome.

A criminal defense lawyer can help:

  • Set up strong defense strategies
  • File the correct paperwork with the court
  • Analyze and compile evidence that supports their client’s case
  • Question the validity of prosecutorial evidence
  • Argue on behalf of their client in trial
  • Negotiate plea deals
  • Identify legal errors in the criminal investigation
  • Get charges dropped to lower crimes

Finding the right criminal defense attorney could help a homicide defendant prevent devastating consequences from their charges.

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