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Homicide Definition

To many people, the words homicide and murder mean the same thing. They both refer to when a person causes the death of another person. Yet, the words have different meanings.

Homicide is a broad term that can apply to both intentional and unintentional killing. It comes from French and Latin roots. It means a death caused by another person. Homicide describes the manner of death. Practically speaking, an intentional killing such as murder and a killing in self-defense are both homicides.

Murder represents a form of criminal homicide. The state may pursue a murder charge for the unlawful taking of a human life. It often involves a specific intent to end someone's life or to commit a felony under circumstances where another person's death results. Murder is the most serious type of criminal homicide. They carry the most severe penalties. Other forms of criminal homicide show a reduced level of intent. These include manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, and vehicular homicide.

Sometimes, a homicide will have a legal justification, such as self-defense or another reason. In those cases, homicide is not a crime.

Families who have lost a loved one due to the conduct of another person may seek financial damages through a civil lawsuit. These cases happen outside the criminal justice system. A wrongful death lawsuit may happen before or after a criminal case on the same matter.

This article discusses types of homicide, criminal and non-criminal. It also addresses when one could face civil liability for a wrongful death.

Homicide Definition

The best way to explain the broader application of the term "homicide" may be to look at its use in the field of forensic medicine. When conducting an autopsy in the U.S. today, most medical examiners will identify the cause and the manner of death. The cause of death will include the medical condition or injury that led to the death. This may be heart disease or a stab wound. The manner of death will be stated separately. It will be one of the following:

  • Natural
  • Accidental
  • Suicide
  • Homicide
  • Undetermined

When someone dies a natural death, or by accident, or takes their own life, the death is not a homicide. When a medical examiner provides the manner of death on a death certificate as homicide, they are not drawing a legal conclusion about whether a crime occurred. They are clarifying the manner of death in contrast to the other options. In a homicide, the manner of death is by another person.

Law enforcement officials may begin a criminal investigation of a death before or after a medical examiner issues their report. They will assess the evidence and determine whether a criminal homicide charge is appropriate. They will decide whether to pursue a criminal case for the 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 an unlawful killing with malice aforethought. This means the killing is intentional and premeditated. In states that have the death penalty, a first-degree murder case may be a capital murder case.

In first-degree murder, the premeditation requirement does not need evidence of elaborate or lengthy planning. Courts have ruled that premeditation can happen after only a few seconds of reflection and consideration.

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

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 someone else to eat it, could still face first-degree murder charges.

When there is no premeditation, the defendant could face charges of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, depending on the laws of the state. First-degree murder convictions likely result in a sentence of death or life imprisonment. Second-degree murder convictions may result in a term of years in prison or a life sentence with the possibility of parole. It depends on the circumstances and the state or federal law at issue.

Manslaughter

The crime of manslaughter can be voluntary or involuntary. The primary difference between manslaughter and murder is the killer's state of mind, or mens rea. Some states, like New York, provide that in certain cases of voluntary manslaughter, the defendant acted "under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance" or distress. This distress is often due to provocation by the victim. Texas Penal Code Section 19.04 defines manslaughter as "recklessly" causing the death of a person.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter means the offender commits an intentional killing but has no prior intent to kill. At common law, the killing happened "in the heat of passion" or "sudden quarrel" and without forethought. An example of this could be a road rage incident on the highway. The offender believes the other driver cut them off in traffic and then shortly after forced the other driver's car off the highway, causing their death. These cases often turn on the unique facts of a situation.

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

Involuntary Manslaughter

In some states, statutes call an unintentional killing involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide. In these cases, the perpetrator engages in behavior that is risky or shows criminal negligence, and death results. The defendant had no specific intent to kill anyone. But they should have known that their actions were risky or negligent. Sometimes, these cases arise from those who have a special duty of care toward the victim, such as parents, who ignore the risks and cause a death.

Examples of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide include deaths that result from:

  • Operating a dangerous amusement park ride with defective safety equipment
  • Failing to provide medical care to a child who is 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

Some states moved away from using the common law crime of manslaughter. In these jurisdictions, the legislature may use the title reckless or negligent homicide to better describe the mental state of the killer. These charges require the defendant to show a reckless or negligent state of mind.

The definition of recklessness is to engage in conduct you know is dangerous, disregarding the likely consequences. Some describe it as acting in a way that disregards known risks related to serious harm. Criminal negligence happens when you fail to abide by a duty of care or special responsibility toward the victim, leading to harm. Depending on the state, reckless or negligent homicide may be a felony or misdemeanor crime.

Vehicular Homicide

When the operator of a vehicle or watercraft — a car, boat, jet ski, snowmobile, or ATV — causes the death of another, they could face a charge of vehicular homicide or an equivalent offense. States define and subcategorize this crime in different ways.

In general, deaths from automobile crashes are not charged as first-degree 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. In Florida, vehicular homicide happens when someone operates a motor vehicle in a "reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm to, another." Examples of vehicular homicide include causing a death while:

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

Justifiable Homicide

Some killings that may lead to criminal investigations into manslaughter or murder are not crimes. Law enforcement or courts may determine these cases amount to "justifiable homicide." A prime example is when a person kills to protect human life, in self-defense, or in defense of someone else. Most state laws permit a justified homicide to defend oneself or another when faced with a credible threat of serious bodily harm or death. This may happen during crimes like rape, armed robbery, or attempted murder.

Justifiable homicide is not a common phenomenon. For 2019, the FBI reported 726 cases. Nearly half related to officer-involved killings. The other half involved private citizens. Inquiries into killings by police officers in the line of duty often result in findings of justified homicide. There have been a few high-profile cases of police killings leading to criminal charges (such as the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd case). Still, these prosecutions represent a tiny fraction of the cases of civilians killed by police each year.

The introduction of Stand Your Ground laws in several states led to concerns that there would be more homicides from violent confrontations. Without a duty to retreat from harm, the risk grows that situations will escalate. Many have called for further study to determine if such laws increase deaths from homicide and whether they have a disparate impact on racial minorities.

Related Wrongful Death Claims

Besides consideration for criminal charges, any homicide might also lead to a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. Family members of the victim may sue the alleged perpetrator, even if the criminal trial resulted in an acquittal. Civil cases seek remedies like money damages and injunctions. Such cases do not put the defendant's life or liberty at issue. Thus, they do not trigger double jeopardy protections in criminal cases.

The burden of proof in a civil case is lower than that in a criminal case. In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove their claim by a preponderance of the evidence. Many refer to that as the "more likely than not" standard. That is lower than the criminal standard, where the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The difference between civil and criminal case standards became evident in the case of O.J. Simpson. In 1995, a criminal jury in a Los Angeles criminal court acquitted Simpson of murder in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, a guest outside her home. In 1997, a civil jury, following the lower civil evidence standard, found him financially liable for wrongful death. It awarded the Brown and Goldman families some $33.5 million in damages from Simpson.

Sometimes, the civil case for wrongful death happens before any criminal prosecution. Elijah McClain died after a controversial arrest in Aurora, Colorado, in 2019. There was no warrant for McClain and no allegation he committed a specific crime. McClain, 23, was walking from a convenience store in August wearing a ski mask and winter coat. Someone called the police, claiming McClain was a suspicious person. Police officers confronted McClain, tackling him and placing him in a chokehold. Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine during the incident. Initially, local prosecutors declined to charge any police officers or paramedics involved with a crime. McClain's parents sued the city for wrongful death. The city agreed to a $15 million settlement.

Criminal charges against the Colorado officers and paramedics followed much later. Public pressure led to a renewed investigation. The criminal cases against the police officers had mixed results, but the point is that a civil trial can happen even if there have been no criminal charges filed.

Intentional Murder Using a Vehicle

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

Recent years have seen several 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 can result in murder charges. In these cases, the motor vehicle amounts to a deadly weapon used by the defendant to cause the death.

One notorious example is the case against Nicholas Kraus. Protests erupted in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis after officers from the U.S. Marshals Task Force attempted to arrest Winston Smith on outstanding warrants in 2021. Smith died in the confrontation. During further demonstrations days later, Kraus drove into a crowd of protestors in Minneapolis, killing Deona Knajdek and injuring three others. Police found Kraus' actions intentional but not premeditated. They charged him with second-degree murder because he sped up as he approached a barricade separating vehicles from the protestors. Kraus, intoxicated at the time, admitted he intentionally drove into the barricade and toward the protesters. He pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 20 years in state prison.

In an earlier incident, James Alex Fields Jr., a white nationalist, drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, organized by white supremacist groups, objected to the vote by the city council to remove a public statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War. Fields killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 30 other people. At a state court trial in 2018, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, eight counts of malicious wounding, and hit-and-run crimes. They sentenced him to life in prison. Federal prosecutors also charged Fields, who espoused neo-Nazi beliefs, with federal hate crimes. In 2019, he pleaded guilty to 29 of the 30 federal charges to avoid the death penalty. He got a second life sentence.

States have reacted to protests in very different ways. After several nationwide protests associated with the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers, Oklahoma saw a need to revise its laws. In 2021, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a law that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters if they are "fleeing from a riot." To use the defense, they must show they had a "reasonable belief" that they were in danger of serious injury or death. The new law protects drivers from criminal and civil liability in these cases. It also increased penalties for protesters who block roadways.

In response, the local chapter of the NAACP sued to stop the implementation of certain parts of the law related to blocking roadways and conspiracy. In 2022, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the new provisions related only to persons or organizations who commit a crime under Oklahoma's anti-riot laws.

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 end their own lives painlessly. Whether this amounts to criminal homicide depends on state law and the circumstances of the case.

Physician-assisted suicide is sometimes called "euthanasia," where one person commits an act to end another person's life, often when the victim is terminally ill or in great pain. Yet, physician-assisted suicide is not truly homicide in cases where the ultimate decision and act leading to death is made by the deceased.

The issue of assisted suicide hit the national spotlight in the 1990s when Dr. Jack Kevorkian faced four trials for assisting suicides in Michigan. A jury found him not guilty in any of those first four trials. Each case involved a patient pressing a button to receive the lethal dose of drugs or putting on a mask to inhale carbon monoxide.

In 1998, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection to a terminally ill patient suffering from ALS. He allowed a video of the death to broadcast on national TV. In the ALS case, Kevorkian provided the lethal dose himself. As a result, he once again faced murder charges. The jury convicted him of second-degree murder.

Since then, 10 states and the District of Columbia have laws supporting the process of physician-assisted suicide for patients who are competent adults with confirmed terminal illnesses.

Do You Have More Questions About Homicide? Talk to a Lawyer

Media coverage of homicide deaths does not always give an accurate reflection of when a homicide is criminal and when it is not. When someone dies due to the actions of another person, there will likely be a criminal investigation. Any criminal charge that meets the legal definition of criminal homicide is serious. Proving a legal defense in a homicide case is difficult. It requires intensive preparation. To learn more, meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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