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Homicide Vs Murders Vs Manslaughter

By Spodek Law Group | July 17, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 12, 2023)

Last Updated on: 12th October 2023, 06:23 pm

Homicide vs. Murder vs. Manslaughter: Understanding the Differences

The unlawful killing of another human being is an incredibly serious offense. However, not all unlawful killings are the same under the law. There are important distinctions between homicide, murder, and manslaughter that affect how these crimes are charged, prosecuted, and punished. This article will examine the differences between these three types of unlawful killings.

What is Homicide?

Homicide refers broadly to one human being causing the death of another. Homicide includes lawful killings, like self-defense or killings during wartime, as well as unlawful criminal killings. Homicide serves as a starting point for determining if a killing was lawful or criminal.There are two requirements for a death to be considered a homicide:

  • The victim was a living person (not a fetus or cadaver)
  • The death was caused by the actions of another person, not natural causes, accidents, or animals

If these two conditions are met, the death is a homicide. The next step is assessing if the homicide was lawful or criminal. Lawful homicides include killings by police officers in the line of duty or civilians in self-defense. We are concerned here with criminal homicides that are unlawful.

Criminal Homicide: Murder vs. Manslaughter

There are two types of criminal homicide – murder and manslaughter . The key distinction lies in the killer’s mental state and intentions.

What is Murder?

Murder is an unlawful killing with “malice aforethought”. This means the perpetrator acted with intent to kill or seriously harm the victim. First-degree murder involves premeditation – meaning the killer planned the act ahead of time before carrying it out. Second-degree murder lacks premeditation but still has malice aforethought in the moment.Degrees of murder in the United States:

  • First-degree murder – a premeditated, intentional killing. This can be punishable by death or life imprisonment.
  • Second-degree murder – an intentional killing without premeditation. Punishable by lengthy prison sentences, often 15 years to life.
  • Felony murder – a killing that occurs during the commission of a felony crime, like robbery or rape. This can be charged as first-degree murder.

What is Manslaughter?

Manslaughter is an unlawful killing without malice aforethought or intent to kill. There are two types of manslaughter:

  • Voluntary manslaughter – when the perpetrator acted in the “heat of passion” under provocation. There was intent to kill or seriously harm but not premeditation. Voluntary manslaughter can carry up to 11 years in prison.
  • Involuntary manslaughter – when a death is caused by a reckless disregard for human life, but without intent to kill. Often due to negligence. Involuntary manslaughter can carry up to 4 years in prison.
  • Vehicular manslaughter – when someone is killed as a result of a driver’s negligence or recklessness. The driver did not intend to kill anyone but their actions showed gross negligence.

Manslaughter lacks the intent and malice that murder charges have. As a result, manslaughter often carries lesser prison sentences than murder. However, both remain serious felony charges.

Key Differences in the Law

  • Homicide is the broadest category, including any killing of one person by another. Murder and manslaughter are types of criminal homicide.
  • Murder involves intent to kill with malice aforethought. Manslaughter lacks malice and intent to kill.
  • First and second-degree murder are intentional killings. Manslaughter killings are unintentional.
  • Premeditation elevates a homicide to first-degree murder, increasing punishment.
  • Manslaughter often involves reckless actions or negligence. Murder requires inten.
  • Murder carries lengthier prison sentences – often 25 to life or the death penalty. Manslaughter carries less severe sentence.

Real World Examples

  • A store clerk is killed during an armed robbery – the robber had no intent to kill but the death occurred during a dangerous felony. This is felony murder.
  • A spouse finds their partner cheating and kills the partner in a heated rage. But there was no prior plan. This is voluntary manslaughter.
  • A driver sends text messages while driving and unintentionally strikes and kills a pedestrian. This is vehicular manslaughter through negligence.
  • A killing is carefully planned out days in advance then carried out. This is premeditated first-degree murder.
  • Two gang members get into a fight and one member impulsively grabs a gun and shoots, killing the other member. This is second-degree murder – intent but no premeditation.

Defenses to Criminal Homicide Charges

If you are facing criminal homicide charges, there are defenses that an attorney may raise on your behalf:

  • Self-Defense – Arguing the killing was justified to protect yourself or others from harm.
  • Insanity Defense – Arguing mental illness prevented you from understanding the consequences of your actions.
  • Mistake of Fact – Arguing you mistakenly believed the circumstances required use of deadly force in self-defense.
  • Diminished Capacity – Arguing mental impairments prevented you from forming the intent required for a murder charge.
  • Provocation – Arguing you were provoked to kill in the heat of passion, making the crime manslaughter rather than murder.
  • Intoxication – Arguing you were too impaired by substances to form intent for murder.

If charged with any type of criminal homicide, it is critical to retain legal counsel immediately to protect your rights and build the strongest defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney can analyze the evidence and determine if any viable defenses may apply to your specific case.


I hope this overview has helped explain the important legal differences between homicide, murder and manslaughter. While in common usage these terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings and consequences in criminal law. Understanding the nuances between these unlawful killings can be critical for anyone facing criminal prosecution. The degree of intent and premeditation makes all the difference between a murder charge, a manslaughter charge, or no charges at all. As with any criminal accusation, consulting an attorney promptly is highly advised if you are questioned or charged in relation to an unlawful killing. An attorney can provide guidance on building your legal defense and minimizing the penalties you might face if convicted.

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