Any killing of a human being can be categorized as a homicide, but not all homicides are crimes. A homicide can be lawful (such as killing in self-defense) or unlawful (such as murder or manslaughter).

This article provides an overview of unlawful homicides, possible penalties, and potential defenses you may be entitled to use if police suspect you of killing someone.

The Different Types of Murder Charges

Murder is a type of homicide that requires the intentional, malicious killing of a person. For you to be charged with murder, the alleged crime must generally meet the following elements:

  • You must intend to kill the person
  • The killing needs to be unlawful
  • The killing was done with “malice aforethought”

Malice aforethought is a state of mind where you:

  • Intended to kill or inflict serious bodily harm
  • Showed extreme, reckless indifference to human life
  • Intended to commit a serious felony

Most state criminal laws have different degrees of murder charges. In general, prosecutors can charge you with one or more of the following murder charges.

Felony Murder

Felony murder occurs when a person is killed during the commission of certain violent felonies, regardless of any intent to kill. The felony can be:

  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Burglary
  • Robbery

Let’s say two people rob a store. If one of the robbers shoots and kills the store clerk, the other robber will be charged with felony murder since they were an accomplice to the armed robbery, which is a felony offense. Felony murder can also apply when none of the felony participants killed anyone. A good example can be if a third-party bystander accidentally kills someone in an attempt to stop the robbery.

In most states, a felony murder conviction can mean the same sentence as a first-degree murder conviction.

First-Degree Murder

The deliberate and premeditated killing of a human being is generally considered first-degree murder. Federal law and some state laws also require malice aforethought to charge a homicide as first-degree murder.

You should note that premeditation doesn’t have to be long-term. In most states, any planning to cause death anytime before the actual killing is enough for the killing to be premeditated.

The circumstances of the murder will affect whether you face first-degree murder charges. For instance, a prosecutor may charge you with first-degree murder if multiple people or a vulnerable person are killed. Some examples include:

  • A killing committed in a domestic abuse situation
  • The killing of a child
  • The killing of a law enforcement officer

Although specific sentences vary by state, first-degree murder convictions typically carry the harshest sentence. Depending on the state, your criminal history, and the circumstances of the crime, sentencing can include:

  • 25 years to life
  • Life without the possibility of parole
  • The death penalty

Second-Degree Murder

Non-premeditated intentional murder generally classifies as second-degree murder. This can also include situations where the defendant only intended to cause serious bodily harm but knew the victim could still die as a result. Extreme indifference to human life can also result in a second-degree murder charge.

Second-degree murder is a lesser charge than first-degree murder, so it’s usually not subject to capital punishment. The exact sentencing may vary from 10 years to life in prison, depending on the laws of the state and other aggravating and mitigating factors.

Third-Degree Murder

You can face third-degree murder charges if you unintentionally cause someone else’s death while engaged in a dangerous act. Unlike first-degree and second-degree murder, a third-degree murder doesn’t require intent. Only Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have third-degree murder laws.

The penalty for a third-degree murder conviction can be up to 40 years in prison.


Manslaughter is another type of homicide that involves killing without malice aforethought. State laws may differ on how they define manslaughter. Some states may choose not to classify manslaughter as involuntary or voluntary and instead hold both as one general crime of manslaughter.

In most cases, however, manslaughter can either be voluntary or involuntary.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is generally a killing that occurs in the “heat of passion.” The killing generally must meet the following conditions to be considered voluntary manslaughter:

  • The circumstances would cause a reasonable person to be emotionally or mentally disturbed
  • The person committing the killing was extremely provoked
  • There was insufficient time between provocation and the killing for a reasonable person to calm down

The penalty for voluntary manslaughter varies based on your state laws, your criminal history, and the facts of your specific case.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter involves situations where someone is killed due to the defendant’s negligence or through the commission of other unlawful acts. You should note that negligence doesn’t necessarily require that you commit an unlawful act. For instance, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter if someone dies as a result of you causing a car accident.

Involuntary manslaughter carries a lighter sentence than other unlawful homicides. The specific sentence differs among the states, but usually, it is treated as a felony at both the state and federal levels.

Defending Against Murder and Manslaughter Charges

If you are facing murder charges, or learn that you are a suspect in a murder, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An attorney can advocate for you, speak to police on your behalf, and determine the best possible defense.

Some of the possible defenses for a murder charge may include:

  • Self-defense: Here you have to show that you killed to protect yourself from a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm.
  • Insanity: Mental disorder can also be a defense to murder charges. A person who is found not guilty by reason of insanity may face commitment to a psychiatric hospital.
  • Mistaken identity: You can use this defense if law enforcement arrested the wrong person for the crime.
  • Lack of evidence: The burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt falls on the prosecution. Your lawyer may be able to argue that there is not enough evidence, whether witness accounts or physical evidence like DNA, to prove your guilt.

Building a strong defense takes time, which is why it is important you contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Speak to an Experienced Homicide Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified homicide lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local homicide attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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