Murder vs. Manslaughter

If someone commits an action that results in the death of another human being is that person always charged with murder? The answer is not always. The person committing the act can be charged with one of a number of crimes or with nothing at all. Have you ever watched TV or read a news story and wondered why a person was charged with murder instead of manslaughter or murder one instead of a felony murder? The nuances between the different crimes may seem subtle but they are important. Each crime carries a different potential sentence.
The particularities of what constitutes a different degree of murder or type of manslaughter are defined by each state. However, there are some commonalities among the states. The different crimes with which a person who causes the death of another human being may be charged include:
  • First Degree Murder: This is the most serious charge that a defendant can face for taking the life of another person. Typically, a defendant is charged with first degree murder if the killing was premeditated. Some states also charge a defendant with first degree murder if the killing happened during a violent felony such as rape or arson. Some, but not all, states charge a defendant with first degree murder if the murder was both premeditated and involved special circumstances such as killing a police officer, multiple murders or particularly outrageous and depraved acts. States that are permitted to impose the death penalty may refer to certain first degree murders that carry a potential death penalty sentence as capital murders.
  • Second Degree Murder: The states differ more significantly on their definition of second degree murder than they do on their 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 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 a first or second degree murder. A felony murder is when the defendant kills someone without the intent to kill but with the intent to commit a different felony (such as rape or robbery).
  • Voluntary Manslaughter: A defendant who commits voluntary manslaughter may have had the intent to kill his victim; however, the law limits the defendant’s liability because of 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 kill the adulterer or child abuser but should not punished to the same degree as a murderer who kills his victims without provocation.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter is often the charge if the person had no intent to kill or commit a crime but his criminal negligence or extreme recklessness resulted in a death. This is often the charge if a drunk driver kills another person in an auto accident while intoxicated.
Regardless of the criminal charges, a person who takes the life of another also has to consider the possibility that a wrongful death lawsuit will be brought by the victim’s family. 
Both the criminal and civil cases can be complex and it is important for a defendant to have a qualified attorney to help in every step of the legal process.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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