Trying to figure out the differences between manslaughter and murders? They are complex terms with seemingly similar but actually very different legal repercussions. Read till the end to know the exact differences of the two terms.
Manslaughter and murder are two terms that we hear quite often but never pay attention to details. They sound identical and even interchangeable at times, but they are very different and broad legal terms that require proper explanation.
While both manslaughter and murder point to grievous crimes where a life is taken, there are significant differences in the definition, severity, and punishment of the two types.
In a case of homicide, it takes a lot of time and expertise to categories the case and fit into one of the categories and subcategories of murder and manslaughter. The main difference between the two boils down to the consequences of the offense. It will be judged whether the death of a human being was the killer’s intention or if it happened accidentally without any such malicious intention behind the act.
What is homicide?
Homicide is simply the killing of another human being. It doesn’t matter if the accused planned and intended to take life or not.
The most brutal homicides are murders, in which the penalties are of extreme level and gravity. Other forms of homicide are manslaughter, vehicular homicide, reckless homicide, and negligent homicide. On rare occasions, killing is not punished as a crime; it is considered an act of self-defense as it is a natural and justified instinct of every human being.
Understanding murder and manslaughter
Manslaughter and murder are the primary offenses that result in the demise of a person. These grave crimes have grave legal consequences too. On the surface, manslaughter and murders look the same, but the crucial difference between the two lies in the defendant’s intentions and premeditation. In the order of severity, the various types of the heinous crime are:
(1) first-degree murder
(3) voluntary manslaughter
(4) involuntary manslaughter.
The worst punishment is for the highest degree of malicious intent. This is why the punishment for these offenses is markedly different from the others. They are not just distinct definition-wise; there are very different consequences related to each type.
The various categories of murder and manslaughter are ranked severity-wise- running from highest to the lowest.
First-degree murders are the severest and are intentional as well as planned, and accidental, unplanned manslaughter is the least severe of them all.
What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders?
Murder, under legal terms and conditions, is committed when a person of sound mind intentionally and illegally takes a person’s life. The life-taking action should not be an act of self-defense.
In the United States, the law and definition of murder can vary from state to state. One thing, however, remains consistent no matter which state it occurs in, and that’s the concept of “malice aforethought.” It is a necessary condition for it to be considered a murder everywhere. The malice aforethought determines if the act was planned and deliberate. It is not always so, leading to different charges and legal procedures.
There is an instance in which premeditation may be missing, but the charges are still that of murder, like when someone intentionally and actively engages in a dangerous act disregarding the gravity of the risks involved and putting people’s lives in clear danger and ends up actually killing someone, this is also murder as per law.
Although there was no planning or premeditation involved in this act, it is considered murder nonetheless.
To differentiate between these types, there are further categories in which the act is sorted:
(1) murder of the first degree
(2) murder of the second degree.
First-degree murder is the one where a life is taken with proper planning and premeditation. No accident or chance is involved; the crime was committed with clear intent to take the person’s life.
Second-degree murder is a murder where malice aforethought is present, but premeditation is missing. The planning part is missing, but the malice is there; the murder was not planned, but it wasn’t unintentional either.
On top of these two degrees, there is also felony murder.
Felony murder is where someone dies of not a direct murder attempt but because of another grievous crime like burglary, rape, robbery, or arson.
It is different from the first, and the second-degree murder in that a clear intention to kill was missing. If the intent for the dangerous, violent felony is present and a life is taken in the process, the charges are leveled under felony murder.
For example, three men committed a burglary, and one of them ended up killing a person with firearms. In this case, all three people are to be charged with felony murder because it’s not about the malicious intent of murder but the evil intent of the other predicate felony- burglary. Plus, felony murder is usually served with the same punishment as first-degree murder.
Degrees of manslaughter
Manslaughter is yet again a homicide that marks an unintentional killing of another person. The manslaughter cases are treated as less severe crimes than first- or second-degree ones.
Manslaughter is never premeditated because if it is, it will become a murder automatically, as per legal definition. However, intentional or unintentional. The definition of deliberate or unintentional will become clearer and evident in its two types of definitions. Manslaughter can both be an intentional or unintentional killing.
- 1st Degree – First degree manslaughter is leveled when someone acts with the intention of causing an injury to someone severely. Instead of hurting, the injuries lead to death.
- 2nd Degree – Second degree manslaughter is when someone chooses to act recklessly being fully aware of the fact that the act can be fatal. Instead of stopping, they proceed with the reckless acts, and cause the death of the other person.
Manslaughter is further split into two separate subcategories:
- Voluntary manslaughter occurs when one person willfully kills another without premeditating the crime. The killing is intentional, but there was enough provocation for the killer to commit the act in the heat of the moment. Let’s say a husband finds out about the extramarital affair of his wife and loses control of his actions, resulting in her death.
This is quite like second-degree murder. For this crime to become a voluntary manslaughter case, provocation and emotional connection must be determined thoroughly.
- Involuntary manslaughter leads to the least harsh homicide sentences. Involuntary manslaughter is leveled when a killing is neither intentional nor premeditated. The act occurs because of criminal negligence or utter disregard. For example, if a person discharges a weapon, a firearm in a crowded place without a killing intent, and a person dies, then the situation is counted as involuntary manslaughter.
Whether or not the malice aforethought or premeditation of the crime, the behavior is irresponsible, causing a high risk to the life of others.
- Vehicular manslaughter is the case of accidental death when someone else’s mistake takes a life.
The key difference between the two kinds of manslaughter and murder is that of partial defense.
“Attempted voluntary manslaughter is where the defendant committed, obtained, or was negligently culpable in an act that would have killed the victim but someone stopped the death or the defendant’s actions failed to kill the victim.”
In order for the defendant to be charged with attempted manslaughter, the following legal conditions must be met:
- The victim would have died; and
- The defendant Either:
- Intentionally completed the acts that would have led to the death;
- Intentionally obtained as act that would have led to the death; or
- Was culpably negligent which would have caused the victim’s death.
Simple negligence does make a case for attempted manslaughter. Negligence must transcend the normal levels in order to justify a case of attempted manslaughter. The legal term for it is ‘culpable negligence” for it to be a case of attempted manslaughter, negligence must be of a higher level than simply goofing up.
If the potential damage or death was justified, the defendant won’t be charged with attempted manslaughter. Self defense cases are also not attempted manslaughter.
What is partial defense?
Partial defense means relaxation from the ultimate punishment of a murder case but does not mean complete freedom from the responsibility of the harm caused. Partial defense does not fully acquit the responsibility for damage done.
1- Diminished responsibility
The defense of diminished responsibility reduces the punishment in gravity by removing the factor of malice aforethought. Diminished responsibility is used to afford legal leniency for mentally unstable people. The offender’s mental condition has to be proven unsound by an authentic medical certificate explaining the condition for diminished responsibility to be pleaded.
2- Provocation/loss of control
Provocation or loss of control is pleaded when there is evidence that the act was actually provoked before the offense took place. For provocation to come into effect, there has to be overwhelming evidence that the provocation was enough to make a sane, reasonable person lose control and act the way he/she did.
Provocation reduces the punishment, but it’s a complicated procedure. Quite a few legal procedures are involved in determining if provocation/loss of control can be pleaded in the case.
3- Suicide pact
A suicide pact is yet another category of partial defense agreed plan between two or more individuals to commit suicide. Individuals may have planned to end their lives together or separately or, in some cases, closely timed but separate.
The accused must have intended to die for it to be a case of manslaughter; otherwise, it is a straightforward case of murder.
What are the sentences for murder and manslaughter?
Various sentences that are handed out to the offenders in murder and manslaughter cases are discussed below:
1- Sentence for manslaughter
An offense that leads to death causes immense harm; the emotional baggage for someone may be too much to bear. The sentence given to the criminal is not the value of the life taken; it is rather just a way of admonishment to keep people away from such grievous crimes.
The maximum sentence for manslaughter a judge can hand out to the criminal is imprisonment for life. The judge may impose other sentences, for example, a
- prison term that will be served immediately or
- suspended imprisonment or
- a community service
These sentences are meted out in normal circumstances; if the judge deems an offender to be a danger to the public, a life sentence or extended sentence in prison can be given to safeguard the public from his menace.
If the offender pleads guilty early on, the judge may give relaxation in the sentence given. The earlier, the better in this case.
If an organization is involved in causing deaths, i.e., corporate manslaughter, the penalty will not be imprisonment, but there will be a heavy fine. Yet again, the fine, in this case, is in no way equal to the value of the lives lost; it is to be taken as a punishment only.
What do the sentences mean?
All prison services are served in half only, except for life sentences. The other half is served with a license in the community, and the offender can be recalled to prison if necessary. If a life sentence is served to an offender, the judge will set the minimum term that the offender must serve before the Parole Board is called in.
The offender is released only if it is ascertained that the offender is no longer a risk to the community. He or she will still be subject to certain conditions. In case an event occurs that establishes the fact that the offender causes danger to the public or conditions are broken, the judge has the right to call the offender back.
How are sentences decided?
The judge will decide the appropriate sentence by taking into account a number of factors, including the facts of the case, the maximum penalty set by law, and sentencing guidelines.
In the case of offenses causing death, the judge particularly considers any relevant sentencing guidelines (if no guidelines are available, the judge will refer to how cases have been sentenced in the past); the sentence the law allows (criminal offenses have a maximum sentence and the sentence for murder is laid down by law); how responsible the offender was for what happened, for example, whether the death was caused intentionally; the serious harm caused by the offense including the impact of the offense on the family of the victim and others; and the circumstances and history of the offender, such as previous convictions, or previous good character.
What about the impact of the crime?
In any case, resulting in death, the offense’s impact will, of course, be assessed as very serious. If the victim’s family has chosen to make a victim’s personal statement, the judge will use the information it contains when assessing the impact of the crime.
Decisions about the prisoner release
The Parole Board makes decisions about the early release of certain prisoners, including many who have committed violent offenses; most offenders who have been recalled to prison; and anyone sentenced to life imprisonment or indeterminate sentence for public protection. When making these decisions, the Parole Board acts as a court but does not hold public hearings. Some decisions are made on paper, others at oral hearings held at the prison. The Parole Board has specific duties that are set out in the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime.
2- Sentence for murder
Sentences for first-degree murder vary state by state. It can be anything, ranging from life in prison without parole to the death sentence. It can be a mix of years in prison and a life sentence. The final sentence for murder depends heavily on the aggravating factors.
In addition to life sentences and death sentences, states have enumerated some aggravating factors which render those found guilty of first-degree murder subject to the state’s harshest sentence. Aggravating factors include aspects of the crime, of the defendant, or of the victim(s), which render the defendant eligible for either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Common aggravating factors include:
- Previous murder convictions
- The murder occurred during a violent crime like robbery, rape, or arson
- The murder of a law enforcement officer who was on duty is an aggravating factor
- Murder of a judge, prosecutor, witness, or juror for prevention of the performance of their duties
- The killing was torturous and heinous
- The victim was ambushed
- The victim was poisoned
- The act of murder involved bombs or some other explosive materials
- The killing was part of a gang activity
This list of aggravating factors is not exhaustive; states may have more or less aggravating factors according to their own set of laws regarding murder sentencing.
The Death Penalty
At the moment, most states retain the right to give out the death penalty to those charged with the highest degree of murder offense. States may vary in the actual application of the death penalty. In some places, capital murder always receives the death penalty, while in others, it can either be life in prison or the death penalty.
Life without the Possibility of Parole
In all those states where capital murder is not charged with the death penalty, life in prison without the possibility of parole is handed out to the offender.
Murder and manslaughter are heinous crimes, and while they both sometimes sound similar, there are quite a few differences s far as the legal diction is concerned. They have different definitions and different penalties. The article discusses all the matters related to the definition, determination, and conviction of murder and manslaughter. Different types, definitions, penalties, and aggravating factors are all discussed in depth in the article.