Both crimes involve the unlawful death of another person. Thus, if a person has been charged with murder and/or manslaughter, the state prosecutor believes they have evidence to show the killing was not natural and possibly due to at least negligent behavior or even an intentional killing by the defendant.

In addition to the killing of another person, murder also requires that the defendant either intended to cause serious bodily harm or death or behaved in a way that was reckless and with extreme disregard to human life. Manslaughter, on the other hand, does not require such an intent.

Instead, manslaughter only requires that defendant was negligent in their actions that resulted in the killing of another person; the intent to kill or seriously harm the victim is absent. In deciding whether the crime alleged meets the definition of murder or manslaughter, the deciding factor is usually the defendant’s state of mind.

What is State of Mind and Why Does It Matter?

State of mind refers to what the defendant is thinking at the exact moment they commit a crime. When that crime results in the killing of another person, the distinction between intending to kill or acting negligently can greatly impact the court’s understanding of how the crime occurred and affects what punishment the defendant deserves.

In the end, it can be the difference between the death penalty or 20 years in prison.

Who Determines Whether the Crime is Murder or Manslaughter?

Criminal defendants are entitled to a jury a of their peers. So, in questions of whether the defendant’s actions constitute murder or manslaughter, a jury typically answers this question. In many homicide cases, the state charges murder and manslaughter, then, the jury decides if there is enough evidence to prove the defendant is guilty of either murder or manslaughter or not guilty of either crime.

In deciding murder, many states have different degrees: first and second are the most common. First degree murder is generally the worst crime and requires proof that the defendant planned and intended to kill the victim.

Second degree murder usually requires the intent to kill or the intent to inflict serious bodily harm but also covers situations where the defendant engaged in extreme reckless disregard for human life. Such recklessness can include a game of roulette with a loaded gun or aimlessly firing a gun into a crowd.

In determining manslaughter, states usually have varying degrees but often have a voluntary and an involuntary manslaughter statute. Voluntary manslaughter is similar to murder in that the defendant intends to harm but did not plan to do so.

Voluntary manslaughter cases can involve heat of passion cases such as the victim provoked the defendant or a mutual fight that ends in the death of one of the participants. Involuntary manslaughter cases do not involve any intent to kill the victim, rather, the defendant was negligent and their negligent behavior caused the death of the victim.

A common example of involuntary manslaughter includes vehicular homicide cases in which the defendant was engaged in reckless driving such as driving under the influence of alcohol when they hit the victim.

What is the Difference in Punishment Between Murder and Manslaughter?

Each state may have different minimum and maximum jail sentences depending on their statutes. Depending on the state, there may also be different probationary conditions and timelines. However, manslaughter cases usually carry less jail time than murder cases and it is not uncommon for involuntary manslaughter cases to result in no jail time at all.

Because involuntary manslaughter cases are usually unintentional, the court frequently sees them as a moment of bad judgment rather than some evil doing. As a result, a defendant with no criminal record may receive a sentence of no jail and probationary conditions that are relatively easy for them to comply with as they move forward with their life. However, a person found guilty of first degree murder is treated much more harshly in most states.

Because first degree murder involves some level of planning and certainly an intent to kill the victim, defendants can face lifetime jail sentences and even the death penalty if their state has such a penalty. Second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter sentences vary from state to state but some jail time is common along with lengthy parole or probation times after release.

How Can a Lawyer Help Me If I’m Facing a Murder or Manslaughter Charge?

If you have been charged with murder and/or manslaughter or believe you may be charged with such crimes, you should consult an experienced criminal attorney in your state. Murder is one of the most serious charges a criminal defendant can face and the penalty can be severe including a lifetime jail sentence or even the death penalty.

An attorney can explain your rights, assist you in your defense and advise you of the potential penalties specific to your state and circumstances surrounding your case. Delaying contact with an attorney can harm your case and limit your options for temporary release, bail conditions, and even your defense claims.