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Key Takeaways:

  • Homicide crimes include murder and manslaughter.
  • Murder generally requires showing malice aforethought and can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
  • Manslaughter can be voluntary in the heat of passion or involuntary, like vehicular manslaughter.

Killing another human being is a homicide. However, not all homicides are crimes. If a homicide is justified because of self-defense, it may not be a crime. An unlawful killing, like murder or manslaughter, is a homicide crime.

Criminal homicide charges can depend on the individual situation. This article provides an overview of criminal homicides, penalties, and possible legal defenses. Homicide criminal acts can be different depending on state law. Talk to a local criminal defense lawyer for legal advice about homicide in your state.

What Are Different Types of Criminal Homicide?

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.

First-Degree Murder

The deliberate and premeditated killing of a human being is generally first-degree murder. Some states require the mental state of 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 a premeditated killing.

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 you kill many people or a vulnerable person. Some examples include:

  • The killing of another person involving domestic violence
  • The killing of a child
  • The killing of a law enforcement or police officer

Sentencing varies by state but first-degree murder typically carries the harshest sentence. Depending on the state, your criminal history, and the circumstances of the crime, sentencing can include:

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

Second-Degree and ‘Depraved Heart’ Murder

Non-premeditated intentional murder is generally classified as second-degree murder. This can also include situations where the defendant intended to cause serious bodily harm but knew the victim could still die as a result.

Second-degree murder is a lesser charge than first-degree murder, so it’s usually not subject to capital punishment. Sentencing can depend on the situation, including prison time from 10 years to life in prison.

Depraved heart murder doesn’t require the specific intent to kill. Malice can be implied by actions that show a depraved indifference or disregard for human life. Shooting at the side of a passenger train or throwing a large object off a skyscraper could show an extreme indifference to human life. Some states charge depraved heart murder as a second-degree murder charge.

Felony Murder

Felony murder occurs when a person is killed during the commission of certain violent felonies, even without any intent to kill. Felony criminal offenses can include:

  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Burglary
  • Robbery

For example, two people rob a store. One of the robbers shoots and kills the store clerk. The other robber can be charged with felony murder because they participated in the armed robbery, which is a felony offense.

Felony murder can also apply when none of the criminal participants killed anyone. For example, if a store clerk accidentally kills a bystander in an attempt to stop the robbery, the robbers can be charged with felony murder.

In most states, the penalties for felony murder are the same sentence as for first-degree murder.

What Is Manslaughter?

Manslaughter is a type of homicide that involves killing without malice aforethought. State laws may differ in how they define manslaughter. Most states separate manslaughter charges into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is generally a killing that occurs in the “heat of passion.” Voluntary manslaughter generally involves:

  • Circumstances that 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 can depend on state laws. Generally, voluntary manslaughter is a felony crime and penalties can include up to 10 years in prison or more.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing that is not justified. These include situations where someone is killed because of negligence or other unlawful acts. For example, if you are driving under the influence of alcohol and get into an accident, killing a pedestrian, you can be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter carries a lighter sentence than other unlawful homicides. However, involuntary manslaughter is usually treated as a felony.

Defending Against Murder and Manslaughter Charges

If you are a suspect in a homicide, an attorney can tell you about your legal options and determine the best possible defense.

Some of the possible criminal defenses to a murder charge may include:

  • Self-defense: It may be a defense to murder if you kill another person to protect yourself from a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm.
  • Insanity: A mental disorder can also be a defense to murder charges. However, if you are found not guilty by reason of insanity, you may be committed to a psychiatric hospital.
  • Mistaken identity: The police may have arrested the wrong person for the crime.
  • Lack of evidence: The prosecutor has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Your lawyer may be able to show that there is not enough evidence to prove your guilt.

If you have questions about the best legal defense for your situation, contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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