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When someone causes the death of another, regardless of intent or any other details, it is referred to as homicide. Not every homicide is punishable as a crime, however. There are cases of homicide that are considered justifiable, such as acts of self-defense or even state-sanctioned deaths. Examples of such state-sanctioned deaths might be acts of war or the execution of convicted criminals.

This article touches upon the different varieties of criminal homicide, while it also addresses the defenses to these crimes and how sentences for each of them can vary depending on severity.

For more specific information or advice about the specifics of a particular homicide-related scenario, consult with a qualified attorney.

Criminal Homicide

Broadly speaking, criminal homicide is broken down into three categories: murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.

Criminal homicides involve a culpable mental state, ranging from negligence to what is known as specific intent. In legal terms, mental state is also known as "mens rea." Each different type of killing falls into a specific category with punishments that vary accordingly.


Often broken down into the two separate categories of "first-degree" and "second-degree," murder is defined as "the crime of unlawfully and unjustifiably killing another under circumstances defined by statute."

While not every state uses the categories of first-degree and second-degree in determining the type and severity of a murder (and some states also include "third-degree" murder as a category), each jurisdiction uses mens rea to define a homicide as a murder.

Typically, first-degree murder requires that a person possess a mindset of the following two elements when they committed the act:

  1. Willfulness, and
  2. Premeditation

These two elements tend to mean that the murderer had planned out the killing or was lying in wait for the victim. The mental state of the killer can be proven through statements or inferred through acts of preparation prior to the killing. An example of first-degree murder could be when someone stalks and kills a member of a rival gang.

On the other hand, second-degree murder typically refers to killings when the perpetrator possesses a mindset of the following elements instead:

  1. The murderer intended to kill their victim, but lacked premeditation; or
  2. The murderer intended only to cause serious bodily harm to the victim, but death resulted; or
  3. The murderer intentionally committed dangerous acts with "an extreme indifference to human life," and caused a fatal result

An example of a second-degree murder could be when an abusive husband hits his wife with a baseball bat, without intending to kill her, but refuses to allow her to receive medical treatment, taking her phone and locking her in a bedroom, fearing that she would turn him in. If she later dies from internal injuries, prosecutors would argue that the killer demonstrated the "extreme indifference to human life" necessary to support a murder charge.

Voluntary Manslaughter

As opposed to murder, manslaughter is often referred to as a "crime of passion" or one that occurs "in the heat of passion," such a killing requires that the perpetrator be "intentional" in their act of killing, while "the offender had no prior intent to kill."

With involuntary manslaughter, the offender must have experienced the circumstances where and when the murder took place in such a way that any reasonable person would have felt "emotionally or mentally disturbed."

An example of such a killing could be a murder that occurs when a spouse returns home to find their partner in bed with another person. The discovery of infidelity leads to a heated argument, and eventually the spouse kills either their partner or their lover.

Given the emotional and mental disturbances that the offender likely experienced as a result of discovering the unfaithfulness, it is likely that the murderer would be charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Involuntary Manslaughter

While state statutes can vary, involuntary manslaughter typically refers to an "unintentional killing." At the same time, generally speaking, it must be the consequence of "criminal negligence or recklessness."

Whatever the case may be, the killing must be unintentional.

An example of involuntary manslaughter occurs when someone kills another motorist in a drunk driving accident (although some states categorize that type of crime separately, as vehicular homicide).


Sentences for criminal homicide can vary widely, depending on the severity of the crime, the defendant's criminal history, and other relevant factors. For example, some states sentence convicted murderers to death, while they might also allow a mostly suspended sentence for a first-time offender who caused a death unintentionally.

Consider reviewing the following resources for more information about sentencing:


Defenses to Criminal Homicide Charges

Defenses to first- and second- degree murder charges and defenses to voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges can take many forms. Examples of such defenses could be:

  • A defense attorney could claim a case of mistaken identity and attempt to discredit eyewitness accounts.
  • The defense may argue that the crime was overcharged, and challenge the evidence used to show the mens rea requirements of the offense.
  • The killer may argue that the homicide was a justifiable case of self-defense.

Consider reviewing the following resources for more information about defenses to criminal homicide charges:

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You

Having an attorney during criminal proceedings is critical for those charged with committing criminal homicide.

A murder or manslaughter case can involve hundreds of hours of work for an attorney. It is the job of criminal defense attorneys to represent those charged with crimes in court. Homicide crime penalties can range in severity. They can bring years in prison or even death. The defense attorney's job is to protect the rights of the accused and ensure their access to a fair trial.

If you or a loved one has been accused of criminal homicide, contact a qualified defense attorney near you. They can help you obtain the best possible result in the case.

Learn About Homicide

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