Q: What’s the difference between homicide, murder and manslaughter?
Lindsey, Florence, AL
A: People who like to watch Dateline, CSI, Criminal Minds and shows like these often ask this very same question. The answer is based on written law and the circumstances of the death and the mental state of the defendant.
The legislature defines in writing what constitutes the crime. The jury determines the facts surrounding the death and the mental state of the defendant. A homicide is defined as any unlawful killing, but in different degrees.
First degree murder is an unlawful killing where there was “malice aforethought”. We think of this as a murder that was planned. Keep in mind that there are lawful killings. The most common example of a legal killing occurs during warfare when one soldier kills another. Another example would be the imposition of the death penalty.
Second degree murder is an intentional killing that wasn’t planned or premeditated or conduct so reckless that it showed an absolute indifference for the welfare of others.
Manslaughter is typically much less severe than murder and is broken into two different degrees, voluntarily and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntarily manslaughter is killing a person under provocation while involuntary manslaughter could be reckless conduct that leads to another person’s death.
Another type of murder is felony murder. This law is a statutory crime where a person who is in the process of committing a felony can be charged with murder if anyone is killed. If two people rob a store for cash and cigarettes and the clerk shoots one of them, the other robber can be charged with felony murder. This often punishes people who just go along to be a lookout or drive the get-away car. That’s what this rule was intended to do.
A judge or jury must determine as a matter of law whether someone had the mental capacity to understand the nature and consequences of the crime they are charged with. This particular idea might be thought of as diminished capacity or the defense of insanity.
Juries determine the facts, circumstances and mental states such as provocation or planning based on the evidence they hear at trial.
I’m not an expert on criminal law and these are just the concepts as I understand them. There is no substitute for an experienced criminal law attorney.
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