Homicide Laws

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 What is Homicide?

Homicide is defined as the unlawful killing of another human being. Homicides, especially culpable homicides, are violent felonies and thus can result in very harsh punishments. (A felony is a criminal offense that can lead to the defendant having to pay a very large fine, serve a prison sentence longer than one year, or both).

The charges that can be brought for killing someone range from intentional killings, such as murder, to unintentional killings, such as manslaughter. Murder and manslaughter are the two most common types of homicide crimes. Both murder and manslaughter are broken down into different degrees, depending on the facts and the nature of the crime committed.

What are the Differences Between the Levels and Types of Homicide?

Distinctions between the different homicide classifications will vary from state to state. In general, however, there are two primary categories of homicide: murder (intentional killing) and manslaughter (unintentional killing). These two categories then get further divided into degrees.


  • First-degree murder: First-degree murder is the intentional, deliberate, premeditated, deliberate killing of a person. The killing was deliberate and premeditated if the killer had formed the intent to kill and had time, no matter how brief or slight, to reflect on the murder and change their mind.
  • Some states include fetuses when defining “person.” Killing a pregnant woman will thus count as two murders.
  • Many states consider the killing a first-degree murder where:
    • The victim was kidnapped, even briefly
    • The defendant was lying in wait, usually with the intent to ambush the victim
    • A police officer was killed
    • The defendant tortured the victim
    • The killing took place during the commission of an intentional felony. (In some states, a defendant need only attempt to commit the felony.) This is called “felony murder.” The defendant need not have intended to kill; it is enough that the defendant committed a felony and could have foreseen that someone could be gravely injured or killed. Some states require that the killing occurs during the commission of an “inherently dangerous” felony. Inherently dangerous felonies include kidnapping, burglary, arson, rape, and robbery, and in some states carjacking
  • First-degree murder charges have been filed in instances as wide-ranging as Infant deaths caused by “shaken baby syndrome,”; serial murders or killings, and assisting someone in committing suicide.
  • Second-degree murder: Second-degree murder also involves the death of another person but lacks the premeditation and deliberation factors found under first-degree. This degree of murder also covers “accidental” killings where someone other than the intended target is killed instead.
    • Second-degree murder is often used as a catch-all term for murders that cannot be classified as manslaughter but do not rise to the level necessary to classify it as first-degree killing. Second-degree murder can be found where there was a sudden fight or quarrel (this indicates no premeditation) or if the killing arose in the “heat of passion.” Second-degree murder in one state may be voluntary manslaughter in another. California, for example, considers killing while in the heat of passion as manslaughter rather than murder. See more below.


  • Voluntary Manslaughter: This type of manslaughter occurs due to “passion” or where an individual was provoked. In this case, passion does not mean anger but instead refers to any extreme emotion that suspends a person’s judgment. A common example of a “heat of passion” killing is when a spouse comes home to find their partner in bed with another person. A defendant is also said to be “provoked” when some sort of physical assault repeatedly confronts them, and they hit back against the other aggressor in such a way that it causes the aggressor’s death.
    • It is important to note that the level of provocation involved must be sufficient enough that a reasonable person of sound mind would have likely responded in the same or a similar manner. Provocation can also give rise to imperfect self-defense (e.g., where the defendant uses more force than necessary or initiates the attack).
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter is killing another individual by reckless or negligent conduct. Unlike voluntary manslaughter, the killing is not intentional.
    • At one time, many states categorized vehicular manslaughter as second-degree manslaughter, but most have since created a separate and third category that only deals with vehicular manslaughter crimes. Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the state and the facts.

What are the Consequences of a Homicide Conviction?

The legal consequences for committing a homicide can be extremely serious, especially if the charges result in a murder conviction (as opposed to the lesser penalties for manslaughter).

The following is a list of potential punishments for homicide charges that lead to a murder conviction:

  • Capital punishment is practiced in states where it is practiced (there are 27 states with the death penalty, plus the federal government and the military). Only first-degree murder can be punished with execution
  • Imprisonment (anywhere from ten years to a life sentence, sometimes without the possibility of parole)
  • Loss of the right to possess a gun
  • Inability to obtain or maintain occupational licenses (e.g., a medical license)

There are also certain factors that, if present, can raise the degree of the underlying crime to a more serious one and thus can result in a stricter punishment. These factors include whether:

  • The defendant had any prior felony convictions (i.e., a repeat offender)
  • The defendant is currently on probation or parole
  • The type of weapon the defendant used to commit the homicide is forbidden (e.g., a switchblade (in some states), a fully automatic weapon, or a short-barrelled shotgun)

The defendant may also be subject to a civil suit for wrongful death. A wrongful death lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit that may be brought by the estate of a person who died due to the negligent or wrongful actions of another.

Defenses to a Homicide Charge

The primary goal of presenting a defense to a homicide charge may not always be to have the charges dropped, or the defendant found not guilty. Instead, defenses are often used to reduce a more serious degree of homicide to a less serious offense. An example is when a defense reduces the defendant’s charges from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Some defenses include:

  • Self-defense
  • The defense of a third person
  • Duress or necessity (someone forced the defendant to commit the crime)
  • Prevention of another crime against an innocent

Should I Speak to a Lawyer?

If you have been or believe that you might be accused of committing a homicide, then you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately to learn more about your rights and your position.

An experienced criminal lawyer will be able to analyze and discuss your options. They will be able to explain your charges and what defenses may be available for your case and can determine the best legal strategy based on their knowledge of the laws in your area. Your lawyer can request that you receive a reduced sentence, help you prepare a solid defense, and can represent you in court or during negotiations for a plea deal.

If you are the family member of a homicide victim and the case is currently being investigated or prosecuted, then you should consider speaking with an attorney about bringing a wrongful death suit against the person responsible for the homicide. While money will never be able to replace your loved one, it can help cover some of the bills and expenses, as well as bring you a tiny bit of peace.


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