Criminal Law

What Is Homicide?

Homicide is the legal definition of killing someone. While murder and homicide are sometimes used interchangeably, criminal laws use the terms to mean specific things. There are two main categories of criminal homicide: Murder and manslaughter. Murder is a planned homicide. Manslaughter is an unplanned homicide. Negligent homicide can also be a crime, which occurs when your negligence causes the death of someone else, for example by selling them drugs on which they overdose

Not all homicides are criminal. In a justifiable homicide, the person committing the homicide may have acted in self-defense. Government executions are also considered justifiable homicides.

The term homicide comes from the Latin word homicidium. In Latin, cide means killing, while homo means man. Homicide, therefore, translates as "killing a man."

Key Takeaways

  • Homicide is the general term for killing someone.
  • A homicide can be described more specifically by using the terms murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide.
  • A justifiable homicide is the term for a killing that is allowed under the law. This includes acts of self-defense and government executions.

Understanding the Term Homicide

Homicide is a catchall term for all killings, which is why law enforcement investigations of killings are called homicide cases — police officers and prosecutors must determine whether they believe the killing was planned, unplanned, or an accident.

Each state has its own classification system for homicides, although the general principles are the same. Homicides that are planned (known as "premeditated" murders) bring the severest penalties, including potentially the death penalty. Homicides that are unplanned face less severe (although still significant) penalties. If the homicide was an accident but occurred while doing something illegal, it is called involuntary manslaughter. As an example, if a business owner attempts to burn down their building for insurance money but ends up killing someone in the fire by accident, the owner would face involuntary manslaughter charges.

Other nuances to the definition of homicide exist. Some states categorize killing in the heat of the moment as second-degree murder, for example, while others label that type of homicide as voluntary manslaughter.

Self-Defense and Justifiable Homicide

Committing homicide does not necessarily mean you will be convicted of a crime. Killing someone is always a homicide, but a criminal defendant can argue the killing was required to save their own life or the life of someone else. If the defendant's actions were within the scope of the state's self-defense laws, it is a justifiable homicide.

Accidental Homicide

Like a justifiable homicide, an accidental homicide is not an unlawful killing. In an accidental homicide, there is no intentional killing and no other criminal behavior at all. However, the family of the deceased person may still be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit to get compensation. One example is medical malpractice. There is no crime, but the family of the victim can still sue for wrongful death

Negligent Homicide

Negligent homicide, also known as criminal negligence in some states, occurs when a person acts with such recklessness or negligence that they cause the death of another by acting with unjustifiable risk. Negligent homicide is different from accidental homicide in that accidental homicide does not involve criminal behavior. For example, say you are driving down the road, obeying all traffic laws, and hit and kill a bicyclist through no fault of your own. This is an accidental homicide. If, however, you were driving drunk, it could be involuntary manslaughter or criminal negligence, since getting behind the wheel when drunk is both criminal and inherently risky.

Related Terms