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The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Updated December 15, 2023
6 min read
The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Taking another person’s life is one of the gravest offenses against humanity. Whether it was on purpose or by accident, criminal homicide is a huge loss. There are two types of criminal homicide: murder and manslaughter. The difference is what was going through the killer’s mind when they committed the crime.

While murder refers to the malicious killing of another person in the heat of passion, manslaughter is related to either unintentional or non-premeditated killings. This small but important distinction means that offenders will receive different sentences depending on the type of homicide.

For any criminal defense attorney working on a homicide case, knowing the manslaughter vs. murder difference and the associated sentences with each is critical for formulating an effective criminal defense strategy within an attorney-client relationship. 

Definition of Murder

The laws for murder vary from state to state. However, no matter where the crime occurs in the United States, the illegal killings must have been done with malice aforethought for it to be considered murder. This could mean that the murder was intentional and premeditated, though not always.

Suppose someone intentionally commits a dangerous act towards human life without regard for the risks they pose to other people and kills someone in the process. In that case, this, too, is considered murder, even though there was no previous planning involved.

To distinguish between these two different types of murder, there are different degrees a defendant may be charged with: 

  • First-degree murder — any killing that is both intentional and premeditated; 

  • Second-degree murder — a killing that is with malice aforethought but is not premeditated, such as killing a person in the middle of a fight. 

On top of these two degrees is felony murder. This is when a person dies due to another dangerous and severe felony, such as arson, rape, burglary, or robbery.

Unlike murder in the first and second degree, felony murder does not require intent to kill — it only needs to be intended for the predicate felony. For example, if three men were committing a burglary and one was armed and shot and killed someone at the scene, all three men would be charged with murder. This crime is typically given the same punishment as murder in the first degree.

Definition of Homicide

As mentioned, both manslaughter and murder are forms of homicide involving one person killing another. So, if both refer to the act of illegal killing, what is the difference between murder and manslaughter? The answer is in the offender’s mindset while committing the act of a person’s death. 

Definition of Manslaughter

Manslaughter is when someone kills another person without planning it. It’s not the same as murder because manslaughter isn’t planned. Manslaughter can happen on purpose or by accident.

Degrees of Manslaughter

To more clearly define the two classifications of manslaughter, it can be divided into two subcategories — voluntary manslaughter (intentional) and involuntary manslaughter (unintentional).

Voluntary manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when an individual willfully kills someone but with no premeditation. The crime is intentional, but it is a result of being strongly provoked.

For example, a husband who has just discovered that his wife has been having an affair may lose control of his emotions and kill his wife in the heat of the moment. This is similar to second-degree murder.

However, for the offense to be classified as manslaughter, there has to be an apparent provocation and emotional connection. If an accidental death resulted from a bar fight, lacking the emotional connection, the crime would be considered murder in the second degree rather than voluntary manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter comes with the most lenient punishment of all homicide crimes. In these cases, the murder is an unintentional killing with no premeditation. The death results from either reckless disregard or criminal negligence.

For example, someone who recklessly discharges a firearm into a crowd of people and kills someone may be charged with involuntary manslaughter. The intent to kill is not present, but the behavior is irresponsible and has a high risk of injury or death.

Another example of involuntary manslaughter involves drunk driving. If an accident occurs in which a person dies, the intoxicated driver may be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

However, some US states may classify these crimes as “vehicular manslaughter,” which pertains explicitly to motor vehicle accidents.

All states, excluding Alaska, Montana, and Arizona, have vehicular manslaughter statutes.

Murder vs. Manslaughter vs. Homicide

The difference between manslaughter and murder charges lies in the defendant’s intentions and premeditation. The order of severity from highest to lowest is: 

  1. First-degree murder; 

  2. Second-degree murder; 

  3. Voluntary manslaughter; and 

  4. Involuntary manslaughter. 

The higher the degree of intent, the worse the punishment. Therefore, the distinction not only lies in the definition but also in the sentences that are handed out.

First-degree murders that are both planned and intentional are seen as the most severe crimes and have the most severe punishments, whereas an accidental involuntary manslaughter charge carries the least severe penalties.

The circumstances of each case also hold weight on the sentence. Aggregate factors, such as having previous criminal convictions or murdering a law enforcement or military member, can make a case more severe.

On the other hand, mitigating factors can lessen the severity of a sentence. These include the defendant having no previous criminal history, being willing to take responsibility for their actions, and showing genuine remorse for the crime.

There are also often different criminal charges for juveniles or if the person’s death resulted from an act of self-defense.

Even with the aggregate and mitigating factors considered, the exact homicide charges handed out for each crime will depend on the criminal justice systems of each state or the federal laws if it is a federal crime.

For example, in Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, and Tennessee, a defendant guilty of first-degree murder with aggregating circumstances could be given the death penalty.

According to the US Department of Justice, the death penalty can also be applied at the federal level. On the other hand, the same crime could receive a life prison sentence without parole in Colorado, Delaware, or Massachusetts.

Difference between murder and manslaughter

The difference between murder and manslaughter lies in the attacker’s thought process before and during the act. While all murders have malice aforethought and are intentional, manslaughter cases result from being strongly provoked, the heat of passion, or an accident that kills another person.

The distinction between these two types of homicide lies not only in the definition but also in the sentences given to convicted offenders. First-degree murder charges carry the most severe punishment of life imprisonment or death. 

Homicide vs. manslaughter

Regarding manslaughter vs. homicide, there is a sliding spectrum of charges through capital murder in the second degree, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. However, even if case specifics are identical, the laws of each state will determine the judge’s final sentencing.

Murder vs. homicide

A murder is a homicide that has been committed with malice aforethought. This does not necessarily mean that the killing was made maliciously but, instead, that it was committed with the intention of being malicious. Malice aforethought may be thought of as proving an unjust death.

Sentences for Manslaughter and Murder

All states punish murder with imprisonment (often for many years), but the exact punishment varies from state to state.

Generally, first-degree murder carries a sentence of decades to life in prison (with or without parole). Second-degree murder almost always carries a lesser punishment than first-degree murder (less than life in prison). Approximately half of the states and the federal government permit the death penalty for aggravated first-degree murder.

Conclusions

If you are facing a first-degree murder charge or any other degree of homicide charges yourself, consider getting in touch with a criminal defense attorney. Your freedom, future, and rights are at stake, and finding a professional to fight in your corner might drastically reduce the charges or the sentence when you establish an attorney-client relationship immediately with a legal professional. Or you can reach out to criminal law offices.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the longest sentence for manslaughter?

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. Judges may impose various sentences based on the particular case and state laws. These can include prison sentences to be served immediately, suspended sentences, or community service sentences for manslaughter vs. murder.

Is homicide the same as manslaughter?

Murder is usually considered a more severe crime than manslaughter, but they are both forms of homicide. There are two types of manslaughter: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is when someone kills another person under extreme provocation or in the heat of passion.

What is manslaughter vs. second-degree murder?

A person who commits second-degree murder understands the consequences of their actions and kills someone without premeditation. The act of voluntary manslaughter occurs when a reasonable person becomes emotionally disturbed or is perceived as being motivated by passion or impulse.

How to protect your loved ones in case you die?

You are drafting a will. This is the first step you need to take before something unexpected happens. For instance, this Delaware will template will help you to get your will ready in minutes. However, if you feel the danger of murder, you should directly notify the police and take care of your safety.