On Ways to Die, we post a lot about murder and just as much about homicide. And we’ll admit, we sometimes use them interchangeably. It’s common for people to talk about murder as if it were a homicide, and vice versa, but they’re actually two different things. So what’s the difference between murder and homicide? And what is manslaughter, anyway? It sounds much worse! Let’s look at these three terms, and the definition of each.
What is Murder?
The legal definition of murder is, in shortened form, the following:
When someone is responsible for the murder of another person, he or she had intent to kill the victim. In the case of extreme mental disturbance, there is an exception. Furthermore, if a person operates a motor vehicle under conditions which are unsafe for or exhibit indifference to human life, he may be guilty of murder. Murder is a capital offense.
Murder is committed with intent. The crime may also be committed by sheer lack of disregard. In a manner of speaking, this may confuse matters even more. See, you can commit murder without intent, as well. Say you’ve been drinking, and you get in your car. You start the engine and begin wheeling down the road at 100 miles per hour. Unfortunately, you strike a pedestrian. Bad news; you’ve just committed murder. It’s now between you and a jury to determine your fate.
The reason that this is considered murder can be summarized in a few words: the vast majority of the population knows that it’s stupid to get behind the wheel when you’re drunk. It’s only a matter of time before you kill someone. Drinking and driving doesn’t qualify as an “extreme mental disturbance.” It just qualifies as foolish, and now you’ve killed someone with foolishness. That’s murder.
With that said, there are different “levels” of murder in the United States court system, and each carry different sentences. First degree murder is the worst. You thought about it, and you tried to cover it up. Second degree murder is similar, though it may have been an act of passion. You may not have planned to kill your boyfriend’s new girlfriend, but you did. After the fact, you were in full recognition of what you had done.
What is Homicide?
Say you’re all alone at home, and you hear a banging on the wall outside your bedroom. You know that you locked the doors, and there should be no one else in the house with you. You get out of bed, and creep into the kitchen. There, you see the silhouette of a man.
You freak out. Grabbing the first kitchen knife you can find, you run toward the stranger. Wildly swinging, you ultimately hear his large body collapse to the floor. When you turn on the light, you’re faced with reality: he’s dead, and you killed him.
Now, there may be other ways to defend yourself than arbitrarily flinging steak knives around your home. In fact, there are likely better ways – that man could have, literally, been anyone. You don’t want to turn on the light to find your brother lying on the floor because of your assumption that he was out to get you. But even with that in mind, you were defending yourself, and that’s what makes his homicide.
Homicide carries pretty stiff prison terms, too. But there are two types of homicide. There’s unjustifiable homicide; you can expect to go to prison. And there’s justifiable homicide. Justifiable homicides include acts of self defense, defense of another person, or, for example, a cop who shoots someone in the line of duty.
If you find yourself accused of homicide, lawyer up. You’ll likely face trial, but if it was justified, you may avoid jail time.
What is Manslaughter?
Manslaughter just sounds bad, doesn’t it? But the truth is that it carries the least weight of all three charges. Manslaughter can be defined as an act to harm someone which results in their death.
Premeditation in manslaughter is tricky. First of all, it’s possible to commit premeditated manslaughter. If you approach someone who owes you money with the intent to “rough him up,” but then that person eventually dies, this will carry a far more severe sentence that manslaughter which was an accident.
And on that note, manslaughter can be accidental. Taking the car example in a different direction, let’s assume you’re out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon. You’re driving the speed limit, and a cyclist decides he doesn’t want to share the road. Cutting out in front of you, your car flips him over his handlebars, and he dies on the scene.
You didn’t mean to kill the cyclist, but dead’s still dead. So you’re going to face charges of involuntary manslaughter. Again, you’ll have to talk to the judge about that. Some who are accused of involuntary manslaughter are let off on probation, while others may serve up to a year in jail. Federal law carries a 10 to 16 month prison sentence.
What’s the Difference Between Murder and Homicide?
The biggest difference between murder and homicide is the intent behind the death. The US Court system, while sometimes scorned for its seeming lack of regard for justice, is actually quite accommodating. A good, fair judge will look at the circumstances surrounding the case, and will hand down a sentence accordingly.
Now that you understand the legal definitions of the three terms, there’s one more note for you to consider. People, in everyday conversation, do use the terms homicide and manslaughter interchangeably. This is not necessarily wrong. While it’s not legally accurate, it’s still quite acceptable to mix and match the terms. Consider it akin to referring to a box of Puffs Plus as “Kleenex.” Everyone will know what you’re talking about.
Murder, homicide and manslaughter are three different things. As you watch the news or read through the Ways To Die website, you’ll frequently see the two words used, and it’s helpful to know the difference between murder and homicide.