It’s pretty well known that murder is bad, and it comes with a lot of heavy consequences. However, are you aware of all of the different forms of murder? Homicide, murder, and manslaughter are all buzz words here, but they’re broken down even further into different degrees, voluntary and involuntary, and even legal homicides. Aggravating circumstances will have major impact on the severity of jail time and other punishments, but this often comes with life imprisonment or even the death sentence. With over 16,000 murders every year, we saw a decrease in 2018 from 2017, but a pretty large increase over the years since 2009. Interesting to note is that 46.2 percent of murders occur in the south. Murder is usually a crime that is pursued with all resources available, and there are always efforts being made to lower this number.
Homicide is the broad topic covering all types of killing of a human being by another human being. There is justifiable killing, or legal murder, but obviously there are also illegal homicides, which are murder and manslaughter. In homicide cases, even though someone may not be held responsible criminally, there may be civil charges through a wrongful death suit. This usually requires proof – though at a lower burden of proof than a criminal case – that someone caused the death of a loved one, even if it was unintentional, and it usually results in a fine. Fines may include cost of medical procedures, hospital bills, emotional distress, and anything else the judge may deem appropriate for the incident.
This isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as you may think. On a federal level, murder is defined as, “the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought,” according to 18 U.S. Code § 1111. That means that the general term murder is a bit more specific than we use it.
First Degree Murder
A charge of murder, or more specifically first degree murder, requires premeditation. There must be proof that it wasn’t in the heat of the moment, self-defense, or an accident. This term of”malice aforethought” doesn’t only refer to cases where it’s obvious that someone had made detailed plans to kill another human. Simply acting in a way that is likely to end up hurting or killing someone or just having an intent to cause harm is enough to count as first degree murder.
There are also a few other circumstances that automatically make a death first degree murder, whether the actual killing was premeditated or not. These include:
- Aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse
- Child abuse
- Pattern or practice of assault or torture against a child or children
These are typically referred to as felony murders, as they’re murders that take place during the course of a felony. This can even apply if the defendant isn’t the actual killer. For example, if a bank robbery went wrong, and a hostage was shot and killed, the bank robber would likely be charged with first degree murder. It’s also usually required, however, that the defendant went into the situation knowing that someone could be killed or have serious bodily injury occur.
Second Degree Murder
It’s pretty simple what this section says about second degree murder. It includes: “Any other murder.” Because first degree murder requires premeditation, second degree murders typically are snap decisions that don’t have any thought of murder until it actually happens. Adversely, there could be someone who had no intention of killing someone, but did have every intention of hurting them, knowing they could end up killing them, and they end up killing them inadvertently. This is second degree murder as well. There are then cases of extreme indifference to human life, which means that someone did something knowing that it would put the lives of others at risk, whether they intended to kill anyone in the process or not.
While these are federal laws, state laws are going to vary greatly by state. However, they’re not likely to be too far off of the federal standard. You can see specific state laws here.
Third Degree Murder
Some states, specifically Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, recognize third degree murder as well. These are typically murders that happen when someone intended to harm someone, but not kill them. It could also be less severe cases of negligence, a non-violent felony murder, assisted suicide, drug-related deaths, and the killing of an unborn child.
Section 1111 also discusses the penalties that come with murder. It establishes that first degree murder is always charged with life in imprisonment or the death penalty. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines mention that it could be possible for a sentence lower than life in prison in the case of a lesser felony murder, for example. However, it’s not generally advised. States general penalties will also vary by state here, but it’s more likely going to revolve around whether the state still has the death penalty or not. These states include:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
This is usually done by lethal injection, as that’s the standard federally and among most states.
For second degree murder, the section is still a bit vague, only sentencing them to any number of years to life. Oftentimes, this will range from fifteen years to life, depending on different factors. In cases where the crime is particularly cruel, there are reasons to use a greater sentence.
Factors Considered When Sentencing
While these may be the general terms, there are aggravated factors or specific circumstances that may result in particularly harsher penalties. Scenarios that often have less mercy in sentencing include: the killing happened while committing another crime; they ambushed their victim, the victim was on-duty law enforcement; they used poison, bombs, or other explosive devices; it was gang activity; and the victim was killed to prohibit a judge, witness, prosecutor, or juror from doing their legal duty.
Additionally they will consider the age and vulnerability of the victim, as the law tends to especially punish those who take advantage of their higher position. For example, killing a minor or pregnant woman may be punished more harshly in come cases. Prior convictions will also make a big difference, as it shows that they may be likely to do commit a crime again. Murders with a weapon involved may require longer sentences, as well as in the cases of hate crimes. Even just a particularly degrading assault can be reason for more severe sentencing. Specific state aggravating factors can be found here.
Contrastingly, there are also factors that may lessen a sentence. The most influencing factors are whether the person was mentally sound or not, their physical illnesses or disabilities, general record, admission of guilt, and any other factor the defense can use to show they deserve a lighter sentence.
This is a defense for murder when they argue that they did commit the crime, but they have a mental illness that doesn’t hold them responsible for the crime they committed. The difference between this and justifiable murder is that it’s only an excuse for the murder, not a reason that the murder wasn’t morally wrong. They will first try to establish competency, as a defendant cannot even take the stand if they are deemed incompetent. One of the bases for this standard is whether or not the defendant can communicate with their lawyers and understand what is happening and being explained to them. There must be evidence to support this claim, and there will be a psychological evaluation. This can be called upon at any point in the course of the case.
One of the major standards for determining insanity is the M’Naghten Rule. After Daniel M’Naghten killed the secretary of the British Prime Minister in 1843 because he believed the secretary was plotting against him, he pleaded his insanity, and instead of receiving death, he was put in a mental institution to treat his insanity. So many were upset by this result that Queen Victoria ordered that a test be made in order to better screen defendants on whether they are truly capable of being held responsible for their crimes. Named after the shooter, the M’Naghten Rule requires a jury to hear medical proof before making decisions that must show that they either were not able to understand what they were doing or that they could not understand that what they were doing was morally wrong.
However, in 1953, a federal appellate judge ruled that the M’Naghten rule didn’t effectively cover all cases of insanity, and instead ruled that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect,” called the Durham Rule. However, this is used less now, as it caused many juries to establish a ruling of insanity based off of the facts provided by different medical professionals, which sometimes wasn’t always consistent and accurate, and it allows even individuals who were aware of what they were doing to plead insanity because they had some type of mental illness.
They may also be able to plead the Irresistible Impulse Test, which means that they have some kind of psychological impairment that they aren’t able to control, leading them to commit a crime, even if they knew it was wrong.
In 1972, the American Law Institute published a new standard deeming that pleading insanity means that the defendant did not have “substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.” It involves a bit of a combination of the M’Naghten Rule and the Irresistible Impulse Test, as it has language broad enough to encompass the reality of mental illnesses – matching the more leniency of the Irresistible Impulse Test, but also held that they must not be aware of what they were doing when committing the crime. This does not apply in the cases of psychopaths and sociopaths, however.
Then, in 1984 came the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which requires “clear and convincing evidence,” that “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts.” This puts more weight on whether the defendant can truly establish the difference between right and wrong.
However, the insanity defense is only considered in Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah. Every other state except for Kansas instead has a ruling of guilty but insane, which has a sentence of a mental institution. New Hampshire still uses the Durham Rule, and most states either use the M’Naghten Rule or the more updated rules, like the Moral Penal Code or the Comprehensive Crime Control Act.
The next section, 18 U.S. Code § 1112, defines manslaughter as the “unlawful killing of a human being without malice.” They then go on to describe that it can be separated into two different types: voluntary and involuntary. The difference between this and murder is that there is no malice aforethought involved – the defendant didn’t go into the situation planning to kill or hurt someone. Because of this, they’re determined to be less morally reprehensible, in most cases.
They then go on to describe that it can be separated into two different types: voluntary and involuntary. These are the ones that you hear described as being “in the heat of the passion.” They’re often centered around a fight or some sort of incident that causes a murder to take place. This can’t be any little thing, however; it must be something that would cause a reasonable person to become upset enough that they wouldn’t be thinking in their right mind.
This is typically when someone was being criminally negligent or acting recklessly, however, not as recklessly as a murder standard – usually referred to as negligence. It also includes crimes that happen in the midst of another crime, but not during the act of a felony.
This is sort of a type of involuntary manslaughter because it’s usually a charge when someone kills someone while driving under the influence, which can be defined as acting with negligence in a way that could cause harm to someone else. It can even be something as simple as texting and driving, as it’s driving in a way that’s criminally irresponsible.
The section outlines that voluntary manslaughter can come with a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison, as well as a fine. Involuntary manslaughter can also come with a fine, but only up to eight years.
There are some very specific cases in which a homicide can occur and a person is not held criminally responsible. These are typically described as when someone is killed, but there is no “evil or criminal intent.” These kinds of homicides are most often in the cases of self defense, or when police must make kill someone in order to protect the safety of themselves and those around them. In both cases, the danger must be imminent and harmful enough that it warrants the need to take someone’s life, however, and this isn’t always simple to prove. The law also reserves the fact that, before a homicide takes place, all efforts should be made to escape. These are often not black and white cases, and they vary greatly based on the circumstances surrounding the incident. These will not come with any criminal or civil penalties.
Homicides can happen in all different manners, and the distinctions, though sometimes difficult to discern, can make all the difference in the sentencing of a murder case. Ranging in severity from first and second degree murder to voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, these sentences aren’t taken lightly, and life in prison or even death are very likely outcomes. There are cases in which a homicide is deemed necessary, and these instances won’t face these penalties if their defense checks out. It can also be proven that someone does not have the ability to determine right from wrong because of a mental disorder, and they may receive treatment in a mental institution instead of a prison sentence. Circumstances are the biggest influence on what type of sentence will result from this, as there are circumstances that can both heighten the severity of a crime – and therefore the prison time, and those that can make a homicide seem less morally corrupt or the defendant less responsible – which may decrease prison time significantly. It’s not likely that these laws are changing any time soon, as they seem to have remained the same for the most part. The most changing part would be which states will continue to hold the death penalty, as well as whether the federal government will continue to enforce it as well.