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Murder v. Manslaughter

Have you ever watched TV or read a news story and wondered why a person was charged with murder instead of manslaughter or "murder one" instead of felony murder? A person can commit an action that results in another human being's death but not be charged with murder. The person committing the act can be charged with several crimes or with nothing at all. The differences between different charges may seem small, but they are important. Each crime carries a different potential sentence.

Murder and Manslaughter Charges 101

The specifics of how different murder charges or types of manslaughter are defined by each state. However, there is some common ground among the states:
  • Manslaughter: Generally, killing someone without planning the crime ahead of time or in a situation where killing was not the intention.
  • Murder: Generally, killing someone by planning the crime ahead of time. This is also called homicide.
The different criminal charges you can face for causing someone's death include: There are three degrees of murder, though most states only recognize the first two degrees.

First-Degree Murder or "Murder One"

This is the most serious charge that a defendant can face for taking the life of another person. Typically, a defendant is charged with first-degree murder if the killing was premeditated or thought went into the crime before it was committed. This can also be called "malice aforethought." Some states also charge a defendant with first-degree murder if the killing happened during a violent felony such as rape or arson. This is known as "felony murder." A person can also be charged with felony murder if they are a co-conspirator in a crime that leads to someone's death. For example, if three people rob a bank and one person kills a security guard in the process, all of the robbers can be charged with felony murder. Some, but not all, states charge a defendant with first-degree murder if the murder was both premeditated and involved special circumstances such as:
  • Killing a police officer
  • Multiple murders
  • Particularly outrageous actions
  • Depraved actions
States that impose the death penalty may refer to certain first-degree murders that carry a potential death sentence as "capital murders."

Second-Degree Murder

The states differ more significantly on their definition of second-degree murder than their definition of first-degree murder. In general, second-degree murder is an intentional killing without premeditation. In some states, intending serious bodily harm but causing death can lead to a second-degree murder charge. In others, demonstrating an extreme indifference to human life is enough.

Third-Degree Murder

Only three states have a criminal system that includes third-degree murder. States that can charge defendants with third-degree murder typically do so for any type of murder that is not a first or second-degree murder. Or, it covers unintentional killings involving inherently dangerous behavior. In Minnesota, someone can even be charged with third-degree murder if they sold drugs to someone who overdosed.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when someone may have had the intent to kill the victim. However, the law limits the defendant's liability because of special circumstances. For example, the law recognizes that a spouse discovering a cheating spouse or parent who sees their child being hurt may react in a "heat of passion." The separate charge comes from the idea that they should be held responsible if they kill the adulterer or child abuser but shouldn't be punished to the same degree as a murderer who kills without provocation. This is considered an unlawful killing, but it is not considered the same as a murder charge.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is often the charge if the person had:
  • Not intended to kill or commit a crime
  • Criminal negligence or extreme recklessness that resulted in a death
  • Accidental disregard for human life that resulted in a death
This is often the charge if a drunk driver kills another person in an auto accident.

Vehicular Manslaughter

This can also be called "vehicular homicide" and involves reckless or negligent driving that kills someone else. In some cases, the charges can involve death through the use of a vehicle but without actually driving. These laws are a newer category of criminal statutes. Some states are adopting them to deal with the specifics of vehicle-related deaths.

Other Charges for Murder or Manslaughter Cases

Regardless of the criminal charges, a person who takes another's life should consider the possibility of a wrongful death lawsuit. The victim's family can bring this lawsuit. Both criminal and civil cases can be complex. A defendant needs to have a qualified criminal defense attorney to help in every legal process step.