What are the Differences in Degrees of Murder?

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Homicide is the taking of human life, while murder is the unjustified taking of a life. Murder varies in severity with each case and as a result, there are different degrees of murder in the eyes of the law. These classifications have a punishment equal to the level of the crime committed.

Homicide is the taking of human life. It may or may not be illegal depending on the circumstances in which it occurs. Murder is the taking of a life with malice aforethought, a legal term that describes unjustified killing. Typically, a homicide must have specific intent or careless behavior resulting in another person's death for a murder charge to take place. In the United States, classifications and degrees of murder carry punishments applicable to the level of the crime committed. The higher the degree, the harsher the penalty. Anyone facing murder charges should understand what the differences are, as they can influence criminal defense strategies and sentences. Understanding these can make the difference between life or death for the person charged.

Two Types of Murder

Justifiable or excusable homicide and criminal homicide are the two classifications of murder charges in the U.S. The intent and actions of the person who committed the crime influence the charge received. If a suspect committed homicide but did not intend to do so, the charge would be less than that of some who plotted the murder beforehand. A suspect who intended harm with premeditation and malice would receive a higher degree of charge and a higher level of punishment.

Justifiable Homicide Is No-Fault Killing

Justifiable homicide is blameless killing with sufficient evidence to prove that the person who committed the act was under the threat of death. Some examples of this are self-defense, acting in protection of others or homicide committed in the line of duty by law enforcement. Self-defense varies from state to state, but generally falls into three categories:

  • Duty to retreat: This law requires that if you can safely avoid the risk of death, you cannot use deadly force. However, if there is no way to remove yourself from the situation, and you face severe harm or death, then the use of deadly force is legal.
  • Castle doctrine: This law allows you to use self-defense in your home if an intruder confronts you. It can also apply to car and workplace locations depending upon where you live. Some states have softer castle doctrine laws than do others. As an example, in California, you can protect yourself in your home with deadly force if you feel physically threatened, but you cannot do so under threat of another crime, like theft. However, in Colorado, you can protect yourself with deadly force toward any danger in your home without the duty to retreat.
  • Stand your ground: This law allows for self-defense in any place a person is legally allowed to be without the duty to retreat. This law stipulates that you must reasonably believe that you are in mortal danger before using deadly force. 

What Is First-Degree Murder?

A first-degree murder charge is the most serious of all. This type of killing has elements of deliberation, premeditation and malice. The punishment for first-degree murder can be life in prison or even the death penalty depending upon the state where the crime took place. Some states have additional factors that can impact this charge such as motive, context and how the murder occurred.

Deliberation and Premeditation in First-Degree Murder

The person committing first-degree murder has made a well-thought-out decision to do so. While the defendant may have been excited or angry while carrying out the crime, this is not an act committed by provocation or in the heat of the moment. Deliberation comes with careful consideration of committing the crime, the consequences for doing so and following through with it regardless of those consequences. Premeditation goes hand in hand with deliberation in that the person committing murder decides to do so before committing the act. There is no time limit to premeditation – it can be brief or it can take years.

Malice Aforethought and First-Degree Murder

Malice aforethought requires proof by the prosecution that there was no just cause or legal excuse in committing a murder, but there was specific intent. As an example, if a man decides to murder his wife to avoid a costly divorce and waits for her at home with a loaded gun, then the homicide would likely carry a first-degree charge. Malice aforethought can also occur in accidental death by implication instead of intent if the person committing murder deliberately disregards another's life.

States can also consider additional factors when deciding on a murder degree. A person's motive for killing someone can also influence the type of murder charge handed down. If the motivation to kill stems from racial hatred or if the victim was a law enforcement officer, a higher degree of murder can result.

Context and First-Degree Murder

Additional details like the specifics and context of a killing also play a part in deciding if a crime is murder in the first degree. Examples of context include the number of people killed, a victim's age at the time of death or if the victim died during the commission of another felony. Some states also factor in how the murder occurred to decide on the murder charge. This can include the weapon used, the brutality of the murder and whether or not the murderer lay in wait.

The Characteristics of Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murder is similar to first-degree murder in that it occurs with malice, but without deliberation or premeditation. A person may intend to take the life of another, but must not have planned to do so. An example of this would be a man who gets fired from his job and shoots his boss in anger. If there was no plan to commit the crime, but the murderer acted with rage in the heat of the moment, it could warrant a second-degree murder charge.

A person can also receive a second-degree murder charge if there is the intent of serious bodily harm with full knowledge that death may occur, but it was not necessarily the intent. The same charge can arise if the defendant acted with a "depraved heart," meaning a callous indifference to human life that results in death. In some states, second-degree murder can be a catch-all for what doesn't fall under the umbrella of a first-degree murder charge.

Third-Degree Murder or Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is a killing committed with sufficient provocation, causing an otherwise law-abiding person to become emotionally disturbed. Intent may play a part in involuntary manslaughter, but premeditation does not. However, voluntary manslaughter may also be absent of malice, meaning there was no intention to cause death whatsoever. There are different types of voluntary manslaughter:

  • Manslaughter in the heat of passion: This type of killing occurs after provocation that causes a person to lose self-control. The time between incitement and the killing must be brief, and the person committing the crime must have failed to regain composure in that duration. Oral threats alone would not constitute adequate provocation unless they come with assault or a proven history of violence.
  • Imperfect self-defense or killing without malice: This type of voluntary manslaughter occurs when there is no intent to kill, but the person committing the act believes that there is a danger of injury or death and kills another due to that fear.  As an example, if two people consent to a fight and one dies during that fight, the other could face a charge of voluntary manslaughter, because both had agreed to fight, but death wasn't intended.

What Is Felony Murder?

Felony murder is a killing that occurs as a consequence of the commission of another felony. It is committed without forethought or malice. This type of killing can even be an accident, however, it is still a felony in its own right. Some examples include shooting a security guard during a bank robbery or a person who gets hit by a car while running away from someone who is about to harm them. The people committing the bank robbery and the assault can face charges of felony murder if someone dies as a result of the original felony crime.

Negligence, Misdemeanor and Felony in Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a person without malice or premeditation. Overall, involuntary manslaughter occurs through negligence or the commission of a low-level criminal act. Each state differs as to what constitutes involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest level of homicide. There are three types of involuntary manslaughter:

  • Negligence: Negligence occurs when someone commits an act legally or illegally and fails to use reasonable care in doing so. As an example, while driving is legal, driving drunk is not. Driving under the influence constitutes negligence and, if death occurs, it can result in a possible charge of involuntary manslaughter for the intoxicated person. State laws vary as to how much self-awareness plays a part in criminal negligence – for some states it is a requirement, but for others, it is not. Criminal negligence can also result from the failure to perform a specific duty, such as taking care of and protecting a child. If a child dies while in the custody of a guardian due to negligence, the person watching the child can be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In this type of situation, the person taking care of the child must have had some duty toward the deceased that, when left unfulfilled, caused death.
  • Misdemeanor manslaughter: This is unintentionally causing the death of another while committing a misdemeanor or low-level felony crime. Misdemeanors vary from state to state and are typically punishable by less than one year in jail. In some states, a charge of misdemeanor manslaughter can result from someone committing any misdemeanor crime while the killing occurred. However, in others, a death caused by someone committing only a higher-level misdemeanor crime will result in that charge.
    Some states allow for misdemeanors to be malum in se, an act that is illegal because it is wrong in itself. This is in exact opposition to malum prohibitum, an illegal act made so by law. Both can lead to misdemeanor manslaughter charges. A crime considered morally wrong, such as assault, falls under the category of malum in se, while white collar crimes fall under the banner of malum prohibitum. Either can lead to involuntary manslaughter charges if death is a consequence of the crime committed.
  • Nondangerous felony: If someone causes death while committing a nondangerous felony, a charge of involuntary manslaughter can result. Laws vary from state to state in defining nondangerous felonies. Practicing medicine without a license is one example of this type of crime. In comparison, a death which occurs during a dangerous felony may leave the perpetrator with a felony murder charge which is a far more significant charge than that of involuntary manslaughter.

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Legal euthanasia is the painless killing, at the hands of a physician, of a person who is suffering an incurable disease with the consent of the patient and family. The practice is legal in seven U.S. states. In these states, a doctor will not suffer prosecution for prescribing medications to hasten a patient's demise. A prescription of euthanasia medication must come from a doctor approved by the state where the patient resides. The patient receiving the end-of-life medication must also be diagnosed as terminal with less than six months to live for euthanasia to be legal.

Physician-assisted suicide is not the same as legal euthanasia. While it is similar to euthanasia in that a doctor assists a patient in committing suicide, it is a crime unless permitted by law. Several states have laws that ban anyone who is not a physician from encouraging or assisting in a suicide. These scenarios can result in a manslaughter or murder charge.

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About the Author

Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.