When someone causes the death of another, regardless of intent or any other details, it is homicide. Not every form of homicide is punishable as a crime, though. There are cases of justifiable homicide. This may include acts of self-defense or defense of others. The government also sanctions homicide when soldiers are at war or when the law permits the use of the death penalty.
This article focuses on unlawful killing or criminal homicide. It will outline the major types of homicide crimes, possible sentences, and common defenses.
For more information or advice about a particular homicide scenario, talk to a qualified attorney.
Criminal homicide happens when one human being kills another, and there is no justification or excuse in the law. It is a crime under federal and state law. Criminal homicide has three categories: murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.
Criminal homicides involve a culpable mental state. There are four common degrees of culpability:
- Purposeful or willful
In every criminal case, the state must prove a mental state and the act or conduct that forms the crime. In legal terms, the mental state is also known as mens rea. The different types of criminal homicide fall into specific categories. The possible punishments then vary accordingly.
Murder often comes in two categories: first-degree and second-degree. Murder involves the intentional killing of another person. Not every state uses the categories of first-degree and second-degree in determining the type and severity of murder. Each jurisdiction provides the elements that distinguish the types of murder. The culpable mental state will often be a key factor.
Typically, an offender involved in first-degree murder has a mental state that demonstrates:
- Willfulness, and
These two elements are present when the offender planned the killing or was lying in wait for the victim. Proof of intent can come through witness testimony. It can also come by inference based on the offender's conduct before or during the crime. Premeditation, sometimes called malice aforethought, can occur immediately before the killing itself. An example of first-degree murder could be when someone stalks and kills a rival gang member.
First-degree murder crimes bring the harshest penalties of all criminal cases. Depending on state law, an offender may face the death penalty in a capital murder case. Sentences may range from a term of years to life imprisonment, with or without the possibility of parole.
Federal and state law may permit cases of felony murder to fall into this category. Felony murder occurs when an offender commits a specific type of felony crime, resulting in another person's death. For example, two men commit an armed robbery. When they go to leave, the store owner tries to stop them, and one of them shoots and kills him. Their acts of planning and carrying out the robbery are willful and premeditated. The law expands their intent to encompass the killing of the store owner.
In contrast, an offender involved in second-degree murder may have a different mindset that demonstrates any of the following:
- The offender intended to kill the victim but lacked premeditation or
- The offender intended only to cause serious bodily harm to the victim, but death resulted or
- The offender intentionally committed dangerous acts with "an extreme indifference to human life" and caused a fatal result.
An example of second-degree murder could be when an abusive husband hits his wife with a baseball bat without intending to kill her. But he refuses to allow her to receive medical treatment. He may take her phone and lock her in a bedroom, fearing she will involve a police officer. If she later dies from internal injuries, prosecutors might argue that the husband had any one of the above mental states, which can support a murder charge.
Penalties for second-degree murder will often include a term of years. They may provide for a life sentence with a possibility for parole after a certain number of years.
As opposed to murder, voluntary manslaughter is often a "crime of passion" or one that occurs "in the heat of passion." In cases of voluntary manslaughter, the offender is "intentional" in their act of killing. But they had no prior intent to kill. The circumstances surrounding the incident are such that a reasonable person would have felt "emotionally or mentally disturbed."
An example of voluntary manslaughter is the spouse who returns home to find their partner in bed with another person. The discovery of infidelity forms a basis for an emotional or passionate response where the spouse kills either their partner or their partner's lover. The killing is intentional, but the circumstances provoke the disturbed response.
Sentencing for voluntary manslaughter often involves a term of years in prison. In rare circumstances, the judge may suspend the prison sentence for a period of supervised probation.
While state statutes vary, involuntary manslaughter typically means an "unintentional killing." Although not purposeful or knowing, these crimes have a culpable mental state. In most cases, the crime will occur due to "criminal negligence or recklessness."
An example of involuntary manslaughter is when someone kills another motorist in a drunk driving accident. Some states categorize a DUI-caused homicide in their traffic code, not their penal code. They may call it vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide.
Involuntary manslaughter will often get a lesser penalty. This could involve years in prison or suspended prison time with probation.
Sentences for criminal homicide can vary 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 defenses could be:
- A defense lawyer could claim a case of mistaken identity. The defense may offer evidence of alibi witnesses or attempt to discredit eyewitness accounts.
- The defense may argue that the prosecutor overcharged the crime. There may be admission to the cause of death but not the culpable mental state needed for the offense. There may be evidence of provocation by the victim or disturbed mental state in the defendant.
- The defense may present evidence that the homicide was a justifiable self-defense or defense of others. In states where permitted, the defense may claim the accused could "stand their ground" and had no duty to retreat from a situation that threatened their life.
- The defendant may raise an insanity defense, claiming they could not form the mental state of the crime.
Consider reviewing the following resources for more information about defenses to criminal homicide charges:
How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You
When someone accuses you of committing a crime, it makes sense to seek legal advice. Having an attorney before and during criminal proceedings allows you to make informed decisions about your defense and any offers to settle by plea bargain agreement.
A murder or manslaughter case can involve hundreds of hours of work for an attorney. If you cannot hire an attorney, the court can appoint one. Criminal homicide 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 someone has accused you or a loved one of criminal homicide, contact a qualified defense attorney near you. They can help you get the best possible result in the case.