Definitions of the crimes of murder and manslaughter

In the United States, if someone commits an action that results in the death of another human being, charges will not always be filed against them, since the person who performs such an act can be charged with a series of crimes or none at all.

You may have seen a story on TV or read in the newspaper and wondered why someone was charged with murder instead of manslaughter or murder instead of felony murder.

The nuances between the different crimes seem subtle but are important because each crime carries with it a different potential sentence.

The particulars of what constitutes a different degree of murder or type of homicide are defined by each state. However, there are some things in common between the states. 

first degree murder

This is the most serious charge a defendant can face for taking the life of another person. Typically, a defendant is charged with first degree murder if the death was premeditated.

Some states also charge a defendant with first degree murder if the murder occurred during a serious violent act, such as a kidnapping or arson.

Other states, but not all, charge a defendant with first-degree murder if the murder was both premeditated and involved special circumstances, such as the death of a police officer, multiple murders, or particularly depraved and intolerable acts.

States that allow the death penalty refer to a certain class of first-degree murder that carries a potential death sentence as capital murder.

second degree murder

States differ more significantly in their definition of second degree murder than they do in the definition of first degree murder. In some states the act must be premeditated in order for the defendant to be charged with second degree murder and in other states premeditation is not necessary.

Third degree murder and felony murder

Not all states have a criminal justice system that includes third degree murder. Those states that can charge defendants with third degree murder typically do so for any type of murder that is not first or second degree.

A felony murder is when the defendant kills someone without intent to kill them but with the intent to commit a different felony (such as rape or robbery).

voluntary manslaughter

A defendant who commits voluntary manslaughter may have intended to kill his victim; however, the law limits the defendant’s liability due to special circumstances.

For example, the law recognizes that a husband who finds his wife in bed with another man, or a mother who sees her child being hurt, should be held responsible if they killed the adulterer or child molester, but did not punish him. in the same way that a murderer kills his victims without any provocation.

Involuntary manslaughter

Manslaughter is often the charge if the person did not have the intent to kill or commit a crime, but their criminal negligence or extreme recklessness resulted in the death of a person. This is often the charge in cases where a drunk person kills another person in a drunk driving accident.

Regardless of the criminal charges, a person who takes the life of another also has to consider the possibility of the victim’s family filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Both criminal and civil cases can be complex and it is important for a defendant to have a qualified attorney assist them at every step of the legal process.

Speak to an Experienced Criminal Law Attorney Today

This article is meant to be helpful and informative, but legal matters can be complicated and stressful. A qualified criminal law attorney can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. 

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