Murder is a criminal charge that alleges that a defendant deliberately and unlawfully killed another human being. In criminal law, murder is among the most serious charges that can be filed against a defendant. In its most serious form, murder often carries a possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty. Homicide is a broader term, meaning the killing of one person by another.
Although murder is a form of homicide, not all homicides are murder, and some homicides are not criminal acts. All murders involve homicide, but not all homicides involve murder.
Homicide is the broad term for the killing of one person by another. At common law, homicide broke down into three general categories:
Justifiable Homicide - A justifiable homicide is permitted under the law to stop or prevent a crime. When a homicide is determined to have resulted from a lawful act of self-defense or defense of others, it is deemed justifiable.
Excusable Homicide - A homicide may be deemed excusable if it is the unintentional result of lawful activity. For example, if a person who is being threatened pushes an attacker away in what is otherwise a reasonable act of self-defense, but the person falls down a flight of stairs and dies from a head injury, even though the harm is disproportionate to the threat, the homicide would likely be deemed excusable.
Criminal Homicide - Criminal homicide involves the unlawful killing of another person, and is normally broken down into charges of murder and manslaughter.
The most serious homicides are classified as murder. Although the precise terms used to classify murders may differ between jurisdictions, forms of murder is usually distinguished based upon whether or not the defendant's actions were premeditated.
First Degree Murder
First degree murder involves the intentional killing of another person with malice aforethought. A first degree murder charge usually involves the direct effort to kill a specific victim, but at times the charge may be based upon an intentional act that carries a high risk of causing death.
For example, in the drive-by shooting of a house, a first degree murder charge is appropriate if a person inside the house is killed. It does not matter whether the person killed is the defendant's intended victim, as the intent carries over to all occupants of the house. It does not matter if the intent was to only cause an injury or to put somebody in fear, as shooting somebody is an act likely to result in grievous bodily injury or death.
The period of premeditation required to support a charge of first degree murder may be very brief. The focus is upon the defendant's formation of a plan to commit the murder, and opportunity to reconsider before committing the act of murder, with the focus being upon that opportunity to reflect as opposed to how long the period of reflection lasted. Due to the element of premeditation, a first degree murder may be described as having been committed in cold blood. The defendant has time to think about the murder, reflect on the plan, and reconsider before making the decision to proceed to kill the victim.
Second Degree Murder
Second degree murder is a category of intentionally caused murder, but where the defendant does not premeditate or deliberate before committing the murder. Second degree murder charges typically involve one of the following three circumstances:
Impulsive Killing - An act that is intended to kill, but is committed without premeditation.
Death Resulting from an Intent to Cause Serious Harm - The defendant intends to cause serious bodily harm to another person, and the harm that is inflicted results in death.
Depraved Indifference to Human Life - The intentional commission of an act that by its nature is likely to cause serious bodily harm or death, even if there is no intent to cause injury.
Depraved indifference to human life might occur, for example, if a person in a fit of rage fires a gun into the wall or ceiling of an apartment building, striking and killing somebody in another unit. Most often, a second degree murder is committed impulsively, or in a fit of rage. The act that results in death need not be intended to cause death, but must be of a nature that would create a serious risk of death.
For example, hitting somebody in the head with a baseball bat may not be done with the intention of killing that person, but the risk of death is so great that the act will support a murder charge if death results from the blow.
Due to the absence of premeditation and the circumstances often present when a second degree murder occurs, such as enragement following the discovery of a spouse's affair, second degree murder may sometimes be described as having been committed in hot blood, or in the heat of passion.
Felony murder is a charge that may be brought against a person who commits a dangerous felony, if a death results in the course of the felony. For example, if a person is committing a robbery and accidentally causes a death while in the course of committing the robbery, the person may be charged with felony murder.
When more than one person is involved in the crime, all participants in the crime may be charged with felony murder based upon the acts of any of the others. For example, a getaway driver who never enters a store may be charged with felony murder for acts committed by a co-defendant within the store.
In some jurisdictions, felony murder charges may even result from the acts of a third party, such as a store clerk who attempts to shoot an armed robber but accidentally hits a bystander, a police officer who kills an innocent person while exchanging gunfire with the defendant, or even where the person who is killed was another participant in the crime.
Felony murder usually carries a significant penalty, often the same as first degree murder, such as a potential life sentence with no parole for the first twenty years, or even life without parole.
Absent evidence of intent to kill or proof that the defendant was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, under Supreme Court case law a defendant may not be sentenced to death for a felony murder. However, in applying the Supreme Court's decisions in death penalty cases, some state courts have upheld death sentences for accomplices based upon the intent or reckless acts of another participant in the crime.
Manslaughter involves an action that results in death, but where the defendant did not intend to cause death.
Voluntary or intentional manslaughter involves the killing of another person without prior intent to kill. Voluntary manslaughter can be divided into two general categories:
Killing in the Heat of Passion - The defendant commits a homicide in a context in which an ordinary person might lose their ability to control themselves:
The provocation must cause the defendant to actually lose control;
The amount of time between the provocation and the act causing death must be brief;
The defendant must not have had time to regain his composure between the time of the provocation and the time of the killing; and
The defendant must not actually have regained his composure before committing the killing.
The question of whether a defendant committed an act of voluntary manslaughter or of second degree murder can at times be tricky. The determination of whether an act that causes a death was committed with or without the intent to kill can be very subjective.
Imperfect Self-Defense - A person whose actions would otherwise support a murder charge claims extenuating circumstances that, although not constituting self-defense so as to make the killing a justifiable homicide, nonetheless partially excuse the act that caused death. For example, a person might claim imperfect self-defense when responding with deadly force to a threat that did not justify that level of force.
Involuntary or unintentional manslaughter involves the killing of another person without the intent to kill, but where a death occurs through the negligent or reckless actions of the defendant.
For example, a person who engages in a drag race and drives through a red light during the race, striking a car and killing its driver, may be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Similarly, a person who drives while intoxicated and causes an accident that kills another person could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.