The Definition of Murder

Murder is defined as the unlawful premeditated killing of another with malice aforethought within any state or federal jurisdiction. The element that distinguishes murder from manslaughter is malice aforethought.

Malice is defined as the intent to kill or intent to do great bodily harm or intentional creation or awareness of a very high risk that death or great bodily harm would occur.

In other words, malice is the intent to cause harm. Some jurisdictions classify murder as killing someone purposely or knowingly, or recklessly with extreme indifference to human life (depraved heart). An example would be shooting at a moving train and killing someone inside.

All murders are considered homicides but not all homicides are considered murders. To recap:

  • Homicide: to kill another human being, even if by accident.
  • Murder: to intentionally kill someone.

Examples of this differing factor can be seen in first-degree and second-degree murders.

First Degree Murder vs Second Degree Murder

First-degree murder is classified as the act of a premeditated killing, which purposely or knowingly causes the death of another person. Some states include the language of deliberate and premeditated as elements that must be proven in order to convict someone of first degree murder.

An example would be someone who planned to kill another person in a calm frame of mind, then reflected on how they were going to do it (deliberation), and then took the necessary steps to carry out the killing.

Some states include felony murder as part of first degree murder. Under the first degree felony murder rule, if you intend to commit a dangerous felony (usually listed by statute) and someone dies during the commision of the unlawful act, then you could be charged with First Degree murder.

In a minority of jurisdictions, if someone gets caught trying or attempting to commit one of the dangerous felonies, and someone dies during the commission thereof, the mere attempt is enough to show that there was an intent to kill; however, the prosecution still has to prove malice.

Typically, these dangerous felonies include:

  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping

Second degree murder, however, does not require premeditation but instead an intentional killing that results in the death of another.

What is the Definition of Manslaughter?

Unlike murder which requires malice aforethought determined by one’s state law, manslaughter is defined as an unlawful killing without intent and without malice. Depending on legal jurisdictions, manslaughter may be broken down into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is further divided into three categories: heat-of-passion, diminished capacity/extreme emotional disturbance and initial provocation.

Heat of passion: The heat-of-passion manslaughter is described as an intentional killing that results from an intense emotion such as rage, fear, or terror that reduces culpability on the part of the defendant.

The classic example of killing someone in the heat of passion is when someone finds their spouse or significant other in bed with another person, and in a fit of rage (heat of passion) they cause the death of another.

In this case, it would be difficult to convict a person with first degree murder, instead one might consider second degree murder which is unpremeditated and does not require deliberation.

Diminished Capacity/Extreme emotional disturbance: Diminished capacity is defined as a mental illness or while experiencing extreme emotional disturbance, which is defined as a temporary state of mind in which a person can’t control themselves enough to form intent

Examples of diminished capacity include disorders such as schizophrenia while examples for extreme emotional disturbance can include instances such as spousal abuse.

Initial Provocation: This type of manslaughter is defined as a killing that results from an act done to stir up rage in the defendant, which later resulted in their loss of control.

An example would be getting fired at work by your boss, then losing your temper and immediately killing your boss in a fit of rage.

What is “State of Mind” and Why Does It Matter?

The “mens rea” of a crime is a legal concept that looks into the state of mind a person had at the time of committing a crime. Mens rea literally means “guilty mind”.

Mens rea refers to what was in the defendant’s mind at the exact moment they committed an offense – whether there were any additional thoughts behind their actions will play into how much mens rea is involved in their crime.

For example, A person at a shooting range was playing around with a loaded gun and mistakenly shoots and kills another person at the range. Although the shooter’s state of mind was that they did not intend to kill another person, their behavior may amount to more than just mere carelessness.

When a person recklessly disregards a substantial risk (playing with a loaded gun around others) and kills another person, they could be charged with a crime.

So why does mens rea matter so much? Because mens rea is what’s considered in court as people decide whether or not to charge a defendant with a specific crime and in turn give defendants punishments such as jail time, fines, the death penalty, etc.

If mens rea plays into what offense someone committed, then it will influence how severe their punishment will be.

What is the Difference in Punishment Between Murder and Manslaughter?

The theory behind most punishments is to make the offender suffer and to prevent them from benefiting from the crime.

Murder is the most serious crime a person can commit. The minimum sentence for murder varies from state to state, but most states will reserve life imprisonment or the death penalty for first degree murder, which is a special deterrence used to discourage future offenses.

Generally a judge will take a number of different factors into consideration when sentencing a convicted murderer, but other times a judge will be bound by mandatory sentencing minimums.

A person being charged with murder usually faces prison time in addition to other consequences such as probation and parole requirements, fines, and restitution paid out of pocket to the victim’s family.

In contrast, manslaughter cases are considered less severe offenses cases because manslaughter does not typically involve the intention to kill somebody.

Each state has its own statutes that determine how to punish manslaughter offenders. The consequences usually depend on whether the charges involve voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or if the offender was under the influence, or if a weapon was used in the killing.

Most states give harsher punishments for voluntary manslaughter cases over involuntary manslaughter cases. A jail time example for voluntary manslaughter could range from three years to seven years imprisonment while involuntary manslaughter could result in a minimum of one year and not more than four years imprisonment.

Do I Need A Lawyer for Help with Murder or Manslaughter Charges?

A criminal defense attorney can help you build your case can represent you during all the phases of a murder or manslaughter trial. The emotional benefits include some sense of relief that your attorney is on your side.

There is peace of mind knowing that you can find an experienced lawyer to guide you through the legal maze of a serious crime.

Consult with an experienced attorney in your state today so they can explain your rights and assist you in your defense.