Homicide is described as the unlawful killing of another human being. The legal definition of homicide includes several types of acts, such as intentional crimes (e.g., murder) and involuntary acts (e.g., involuntary manslaughter).

Each classification of homicide crimes is associated with a different legal consequence or punishment.

In addition, the types of defenses available for each homicide crime may vary depending on the laws of a state as well as the nature of the crime.

How Do Homicide Defenses Work?

In a case brought against a defendant for homicide charges, the primary goal of using a defense may not always be to completely remove the charges. Instead, defenses are often cited against a homicide charge for the purpose of reducing a more serious degree of homicide to a less serious offense.

An example of this is when a defense is used to reduce the defendant’s charges from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

In order to be found guilty of homicide, the prosecution must prove that the defendant acted with the requisite mental state. For instance, in a case against a defendant for first-degree murder charges, the prosecution or government must prove that the defendant acted with intention and premeditated the act.

Thus, it is often the case that many defenses to homicide are based on a lack of the required mental state.

What are Some Different Types of Homicide Defenses?

There are several types of defenses available to defendants charged with homicide. These include some of the following defenses:

Justifiable Homicide: Justifiable homicides are those offenses which are excused by the law. A justifiable homicide defense is typically a complete defense against the charge of homicide. This means that the defense, if proven, will excuse the defendant from receiving a punishment or sentence for committing the crime of homicide.

Some types of defenses listed under the general category of a justifiable homicide defense include:

  • Perfect Self-Defense: It may be a defense to a charge for homicide if the defendant acted out of the honest and reasonable belief that the homicide was necessary for self-defense. The defendant will usually be required to prove that they did not instigate the violence, and that they used an equal amount of force in responding to the aggressor.

    • It may also be a perfect self-defense in situations where the defendant was assisting in a suicide and abiding by the death with dignity statute in that state. It is important to note that only four states permit death with dignity conduct.
  • Imperfect Self-Defense: If a defendant honestly believed that self-defense was a necessity, but a reasonable person would think otherwise, then the defendant could still be let off by using an imperfect self-defense. The main difference between perfect self-defense and imperfect self-defense is that imperfect self-defense does not have the reasonable belief requirement.
  • Defense of Property: Death or severe bodily injury against another is usually not permitted as a defense to protecting property. However, there are some instances where it may be acceptable if the defendant can prove that the intruder or trespasser threatened their life as the owner of the property.
  • Duress and/or Necessity: Although it is extremely rare, it may be possible to get a sentence reduced if the defendant can show that another person forced them to commit the killing. This defense is not available for murder charges and depending on the state laws and circumstances of the case, it may only enable the defendant to have their sentence reduced, not removed.
  • Crime Prevention: If a defendant committed a killing in order to prevent another crime, it may be a defense if it can be proven that they were reasonable in their intervention. The standards will differ depending on whether the defendant is law enforcement or a civilian.

Inability to Intentionally Kill: If the defendant is unable to understand that they have a duty not to take a life and/or the defendant is unable to act on that duty, then they may be able to use the defense that they are unable to intentionally kill.

These kinds of defenses will not excuse the homicide, but a successful defense will reduce the homicide charge; most likely to a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charge. As such, prison time will still be given, but it will be lessened based on the circumstances. If the defendant is proven insane, then the defendant will be sent to a mental institution instead.

  • Insanity: Criminal laws provide various defenses under the category of insanity. It generally must be proven that the defendant was not mentally sound at the time of the act, and also that they lacked the required mental state for homicide. Records will indicate that the defendant claimed an insanity defense, which could have consequences in other areas of the defendant’s life.
  • Intoxication: This type of defense is usually used to reduce a murder charge to a less serious charge. Intoxication can sometimes have the effect of rendering a person unable to form the required mental state for homicide. However, a voluntary intoxication has much less persuasion in court because it is assumed that the defendant should know when to stop drinking or when their intoxicated state begins to become excessive.
  • Diminished Capacity: Diminished capacity, also known as provocation, is best described as a state of “temporary insanity” that occurs when the defendant is in an extremely stressful situation. The stress must not be voluntarily brought on by the defendant and it must be found that a reasonable person would also be shocked under the circumstances.

    • For example, if the defendant permanently leaves their home country to move-in with their spouse, but discovers that their spouse has been continuously cheating on them only a few days after they arrive.
  • Unconsciousness: A defendant who is found to have been unconscious when the crime was performed is unable to do the act, thereby negating the homicide charge.

Reasonable Mistake: In order to prove the required mental state to kill, the defendant must have had the knowledge that the killing was illegal and unjustified. A reasonable mistake means that the defendant lacks such knowledge, and as a result, also lacks the necessary mental state.

  • Mistake of Fact: The mistake of fact must serve to negate the required mental state for the homicide charges. Also, the defendant’s conduct must have been lawful had the mistaken facts been true. The mistake of fact for homicide charges is when the defendant mistakenly believed that the defendant’s life was at stake, which furthers a defense of imperfect self-defense. A mistake regarding the law, however, is typically not a defense.
  • Entrapment: A defense called entrapment may be available when a law enforcement agent or officer encourages, induces, or solicits a person to commit a homicide which they would not otherwise have committed. Entrapment is one of the only exceptions to the rule that a mistake of law is not a defense to a criminal charge.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help with Homicide Charges?

If you are faced with homicide charges, you should speak with a local criminal defense attorney immediately to see if there are any defenses available for your case.

As you can tell from the above discussion, homicide charges do not necessarily result in a guilty sentence. An experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you get the charges removed or reduced to a lesser crime.