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Homicide Definition

The killing of a human being is called "homicide" when it is caused by another person, whether intentionally or accidentally.

The most serious homicides are murders, which carry the most serious penalties. Other forms of homicide demonstrate reduced levels of intent. These include manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, and vehicular homicide. In rare cases, a killing is classified as legally justified by self-defense or some other reason and is not punished as a crime.

Families who have lost a loved one may seek financial damages separately from the criminal justice system. This takes place in civil court with a wrongful death lawsuit.

This article discusses types of homicide, when a homicide is considered legally justified, and when one could face civil liability for a wrongful death.

  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Legal Homicide
  • Examples of Homicide
  • Related Claim: Wrongful Death

Murder

Murder is the most serious charge of criminal homicide. State statutes typically divide murder into different degrees of wrongfulness. The typical definition of first-degree murder is a killing that is both intentional and premeditated.

The premeditation requirement does not require evidence of elaborate or lengthy planning. Courts have ruled that premeditation could have occurred after only a few seconds of reflection and consideration.

The requirement of intent can be similarly elastic. To convict for first-degree murder, a jury does not need to find that the defendant intended to cause death. Instead, the prosecutors can show that the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury or killed while attempting to commit some other felony.

Intent also does not need to be directed at a specific person. If someone planned to kill one person, but accidentally killed someone else, the murder was still intentional and premeditated. A killer who delivers a poisoned meal to his victim, only for it to be eaten by someone else, could still be convicted on a first-degree murder charge.

When there is a lack of premeditation, the defendant could be charged with second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, depending on the laws of the state.

Manslaughter

Manslaughter can be categorized as voluntary or involuntary. The primary difference between manslaughter and murder is the killer's state of mind, or mens rea. Some states define that mental state as "under the influence of extreme emotional distress" caused by provocation. Texas defines manslaughter as "recklessly" causing the death of a person.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter means the offender had no prior intent to kill. The murder may have occurred "in the heat of passion" and without forethought. An example of this would be a jilted spouse who murdered "in the heat of passion" after finding their partner in bed with a lover.

Every state's laws are different. In some states, this crime could be charged as second-degree murder.

Involuntary Manslaughter

In some states, statutes define an unintentional form of manslaughter as involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide. In these cases, the perpetrator accidentally killed the victim as a result of engaging in risky or criminally negligent behavior. This applies to defendants who should have been aware that their actions were risky or negligent or those who, like parents, had a special duty of care toward the victim.

Examples of negligent homicide deaths that result from:

  • Operating a dangerous amusement park ride with defective safety equipment
  • Failing to provide medical care to a child who is clearly sick and suffering
  • Leaving a loaded gun unsecured in the home within reach of a child
  • Driving while intoxicated (in some states - other states create a specific definition for these crimes)

Reckless or Negligent Homicide

Because different states have different names for similar criminal charges. Reckless homicide and negligent homicide are the preferred modern terms because the title defines the state of mind or mens rea possessed by the killer. These charges require either that the defendant knew the lethal actions were risky and could cause harm or that the defendant failed to abide by a duty of care or special responsibility toward the victim. These charges are commonly used in jurisdictions that have eliminated voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges from their criminal statutes.

Vehicular Homicide

When the operator of a vehicle - a car, boat, jet ski, snowmobile, or ATV — causes the death of another, they could face a charge of vehicular homicide. This crime is defined and subcategorized in different ways by different states.

In general, automobile crashes are not charged as first- or second-degree murder because the vehicle operator had no intent to kill anyone. Many fatal car accidents are just that - accidents. No criminal charges follow those incidents, however tragic. The deaths that draw criminal charges tend to result from the dangerously reckless or negligent operation of a vehicle. Examples of vehicular homicide include causing a death while:

  • Committing a misdemeanor traffic violation, such as failing to stop at a stop sign
  • Driving at an unreasonable speed, such as street racing
  • Operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Eluding police or causing a high-speed chase
  • Failing to stop and render aid after a crash (a "hit and run")

Justifiable Homicide

Some killings that would fall under criminal laws against manslaughter or murder are not illegal. These are sometimes referred to as "justifiable homicide." A prime example is killing to protect human life, in self-defense or in defense of someone else.

A homicide is deemed justified if state law allows lethal force in a self-defense situation. Most state laws allow justified homicide to defend oneself or another when faced with a credible threat of bodily harm such as rape, armed robbery, or murder.

Justifiable homicide is not a common phenomenon. In a study of more than 4,500 handgun homicide cases from FBI records, only some 7% of murders were found to be justified. The study found one important caveat: If the killer was white and the victim was black, and the state where they lived has a Stand Your Ground law, a murder as almost twice as likely (13.6%) to be ruled a justifiable homicide.

Killings by a police officers in the line of duty is often considered a justified homicide. There have been a few high-profile cases of police killings leading to criminal charges (most notably the Derek Chauvin case), but these prosecutions represent a tiny fraction of the cases of civilians killed by police each year. In 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings, with black and Hispanic victims about twice as likely to be killed.

Related Wrongful Death Claims

Regardless of the type of homicide, it could also lead to a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. Family members of the victim may sue the alleged perpetrator, even if they were not found guilty of the killing of another person in criminal court. The standard of proof for a wrongful death lawsuit is much lower than the criminal standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Wrongful death lawsuits result in awards of monetary damages rather than criminal punishment. This is exemplified in the famous case of O.J. Simpson, who was held civilly responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, a guest at her home. Simpson had been previously acquitted of murder in a Los Angeles criminal court, but a civil court jury found him financially liable and ordered him to pay the $33.5 million in damages.

Sometimes the civil case for wrongful death proceeds in advance of criminal prosecutions. After the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, who died in police custody after a controversial arrest in Aurora, Colorado. local prosecutors initially declined to charge any of the police or paramedics involved. McClain's parents sued the city for wrongful death, and the city government agreed to a $15 million settlement. Criminal charges followed much later, after political pressure led to a renewed investigation. In September 2021, a grand jury indicted three Aurora police officers and two paramedics on charges related to McClain's death.

Intentional Murder Using a Vehicle

Although vehicular homicides are usually unintentional and is not charged as murder, some killers use their vehicles as their weapon of choice for intentional killings.

Recent years have seen a number of high-profile cases in which drivers intentionally drove into pedestrians on the sidewalk or protestors at a demonstration. The intentional use of a vehicle to cause injury is usually charged as murder.

One notorious example is the case against Nicholas Kraus. Kraus killed a woman after driving into a crowd of protestors in Minneapolis in 2021. Kraus was drunk at the time, but his actions were found to be intentional but not premeditated. He was charged with second-degree murder because he sped up as he approached a barricade separating vehicles from the protestors, who were demonstrating against the police shooting of a black man.

Similarly, James Alex Fields, Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder, eight counts of malicious wounding, and hit and run after he intentionally drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, NC. Fields, who espoused neo-Nazi beliefs, pled guilty to 29 of 30 charges, including federal hate crimes, in order to avoid the death penalty.

Curiously, this has led to a legislative response from politicians who support killing protestors with vehicles. In April 2021, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1674, granting immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters if they are "fleeing from a riot," and there is "reasonable belief" that they are in danger. The new law also protects drivers from being held civilly liable for killing a protestor in a wrongful death suit.

In response, the local chapter of the NAACP sued to stop implementation of the law. In October of 2021, U.S. District Judge Robin Cauthron granted a preliminary injunction that blocked parts of the law from taking effect on the basis that the law was unconstitutionally vague and posed "a distinct risk of sweeping an improper application." The appeals process is ongoing.

Five other states introduced similar bills that would have created a legal defense for drivers who kill protesters with their vehicles, but none have been passed into law.

Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide

Physician-assisted suicide is the controversial practice of providing terminally ill people with a lethal dose of medication that allows them to painlessly end their own lives. This process is sometimes incorrectly referred to "euthanasia," but it is not truly homicide because the ultimate decision to die is made by the deceased.

This issue was thrust into the national spotlight in the 1990's when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was tried four times for assisting suicides in Michigan. He was not convicted in any of those first four trials. In 1998, he administered a lethal injection to a terminally ill patient suffering from ALS and allowed a video of the death to be televised on a national broadcast. 

As a result, he was tried and convicted for first-degree murder. In addition to the television broadcast, there was key difference between the televised death and the 130 other cases where he had presided over the death of a patient. In all the other cases, the lethal dosage was furnished to the patient but not administered; the patients themselves pressed a button to receive the drugs or put on a mask to inhale deadly carbon monoxide.

Since then, ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized the process of physician-assisted suicide for patients who are competent adults with confirmed terminal illnesses.

Get Legal Help Against Homicide Criminal Charges

Any criminal charge that meets the legal definition of homicide is serious. Defense in homicide cases is complicated and requires intensive preparation. If you've been charged with a homicide-related crime, or any crime for that matter, meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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