Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter



Published: 14 Feb 2022

shadow of hand holding big sharp knife

A lot of us probably wondered about the difference between murder and manslaughter at some point in our lives. More than the meaning, we want to know their distinction as we can never know when someone close to us may get involved or be suspected of murder. The growing fame of crime documentaries on Netflix and other streaming platforms also fuels our interest in the subject. In these documentaries, we often hear homicide mentioned along with murder and manslaughter. Now, how are they different?

As civilians, we can’t exactly know the difference between murder and manslaughter if we’re actually involved in the case. For most of us, our extent of knowledge on the topic is through news or true-crime TV shows. Various episodes on series commonly feature real-life cases.

Once a killer gets caught, they stand trial for either murder or manslaughter under homicide. But how do killers get either prison sentences? Why do lawmakers need to go to such lengths before convicting killers? What other terms can we associate with homicide? What do scenarios do lawmakers consider before labeling cases under murder or manslaughter? To answer these questions, we compiled what we learned about the heinous killing crimes below.

Connecting Homicide and The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Out of all of the crimes we know, we believe that those arrested for homicide committed a major offense. A quick Google search defines homicide as the act of causing someone’s death. In turn, murder and manslaughter fall under the category of homicide when sentencing killers. Some say that the difference between murder and manslaughter comes from the severity of the death.

To most of us common folk, manslaughter sounds more heinous than murder because of the word “slaughter.” However, that may not be the case once you know how lawmakers define the two words. If you watch crime documentaries, you may notice how most homicide trials usually last from months to years. Those who enforce laws must consider every piece of evidence to help the jury decide a killer’s fate.

To put things simply, you’ll know the difference between murder and manslaughter by learning the suspect’s state of mind. If you’re suspected of accidental killing, you must prove that you did not intend to kill your victim. You must also convince the jury that you’re willing to take responsibility for causing accidental death. Once you achieve this, the lawmakers on your side can focus on amounting your sentence to manslaughter. However, if the defense finds a way to convince the jury otherwise, you might get tried for murder. Even if you’re not guilty, they’re determined to make it seem like you intentionally killed the victim.

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The Broad Background of Homicide

Homicide serves as a neutral term when we talk about the numerous causes of death. It’s simply defined as an act of killing one person or more. You don’t need to consider the moral or legal factors at play from the get-go. It becomes more complex when you talk about it covering both legal and illegal killings.

Lawmakers usually call legal killings as justifiable homicides. A death under that category can be caused by self-defense or if the suspect’s job requires them to kill. If you’re curious about jobs with the license to kill, we suggest you talk to executioners and people from the military. It’s a mystery how they keep such strong resolve despite needing to end a life almost every day.

If you watch shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, you may notice that investigators treat most death cases as homicides. They do this to assign proper detectives for the investigation. In turn, the detectives determine what type of killing caused the victims demise. All cases get filed under the main categories of murder and manslaughter. On some occasions, they consider a crime under a justifiable homicide when a suspect confesses killing due to self-defense. However, this filing usually ends up being temporary because law enforcement stands with the defense at all costs.

What Happens to Murderers?

Earlier, we mentioned that the difference between murder and manslaughter lies in the suspect’s intent to kill. In murder, you hoped or planned for the death of the victim. This also applies to beating someone to death. If your victim survives, you may be charged with assault or battery charges. However, you’ll be branded as a murderer once your victim dies. In court, the judge urges the jury to consider the suspect’s state of mind. These cases take a while because they must closely examine the presented evidence. This sometimes includes a full analysis of the suspect’s personality and mental history.

If the evidence strongly points to murder, the suspect and his legal team aim to get the most lenient sentence. Murder cases present different types of convictions, depending on the severity of the crime. The different types of intentional killing can fall under different categories, depending on the US state you’re in. For example, the state of California charges defendants with either first-degree, second-degree, or capital murder.

If you planned a killing, you may be tried for premeditated murder under the first degree. However, your legal team may find a way to change that to lower sentences like felonies or second-degree murder. We listed a few of the most common types of murder below so you can understand the severity of each sentence.

Gun, shadow
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

First-Degree Murder

We all know that first-degree murder hails as the gravest sentence for the killing. If you receive this sentence, your penalty may exceed more than 25 years to life in prison. On some occasions, the prosecution may gather enough evidence to convict you under capital murder. This intimidates most criminals because they may not get a possibility of parole or worse, receive the death penalty. Criminals must go against prosecutors bent on proving they killed with malice aforethought, premeditation, and intent.

If you watched serial killer documentaries, you might notice that most of them get convicted for premeditated murders of the first degree. The prosecution focuses on this sentence because of the meticulous planning involved in the crime committed. You may also get tried for this conviction if you passionately intended to kill someone. The time of your planned killing doesn’t matter as long as the prosecution presents stronger evidence on your premeditated kill.

In other cases, bombers or hired killers often get tried for murder by specific means. This type of first-degree murder includes bombings, assassinations, and drive-by shootings. In some cases, relatives of victims of school shootings aim to use this sentence against suspects. You may notice several debates about this subject because some school shooters are underaged.

Second-Degree Murder

If you’re convicted of murder, your main goal centers on convincing the jury that your crime falls under the second degree. This sentence often confuses people because of the different loopholes that defense teams can exploit. Once they find something useful, they focus on insisting on the suspect’s lack of premeditation or intent to harm. If they lack sufficient evidence, the defense tries to distract the jury by using rage or insanity as their reasoning. In some cases, suspects plead guilty to second-degree murder in hopes of getting a lower sentence. We can’t blame their determination because 15 years sounds better than 25 years without the possibility of parole.

Unlike first-degree murder, you may define second-degree murder as killing someone without any preconceived intention. Because of this, some defendants can plead for involuntary manslaughter if the prosecution lacks evidence of intentional murder. If you find yourself in the same predicament, you may also opt to focus on intent to harm. By doing this you and your defense team may aim for assault with unintentional killing. In some cases, suspects use depraved indifference as their reason for murder. This circumstance focuses on a death provoked by the victim or extreme indifference to human life.

Third-Degree Murder

Though rare, the US States like Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania recognize cases under third-degree murder. You might not hear this conviction often in crime documentaries because most conditions meet second-degree murder. Plus, the states that still validate murder under the third degree can implement longer penalties for criminals. This circumstance especially applies to those who unintentionally killed someone while committing an entirely different crime. For example, you indirectly caused a person to die of an overdose. Your true crime is the distribution of illegal drugs but you’ll also be tried for third-degree murder.

Another scenario under third-degree murder includes a non-violent felony resulting in murder. Imagine you planned a robbery or heist with your friends. All goes well until you unintentionally kill a disobedient hostage or witness. If caught, the prosecution will aim to try you for robbery and third-degree murder. Your defense team may attempt to focus on your initial crime to distract the jury. However, you may find it hard to convince the judge to overlook the accidental death. If they find you guilty, you may face up to more than 40 years to life in prison due to multiple charges.

Felony Murder

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Most felony murders fall under the murder of the first degree because of the intent involved. You may associate it with the non-violent felony of third-degree murder due to the combined sentences applied. In some cases, some may receive other murder charges apart from felony murder.

Deaths from crimes like rape, kidnapping, and arson fall under felony murder. These crimes may sound familiar to you if you watch documentaries about serial killers. These criminals get tried for multiple charges and those often include heinous crimes like kidnapping and rape. Serial arsons and rapists may also get tried for felony murder if their victims die due to the initial crimes.

Getting Sentenced for Manslaughter

Suspects get tried for manslaughter if the death they caused is proven unintentional. Cases under this type of homicide come with lesser sentences compared to those tried for murder. Earlier, we mentioned some forms of murder that you may also associate with manslaughter. These circumstances may seem confusing to most of us because the law depends on each state or country.

Some consider manslaughter as part of second-degree murder and judge the suspect as such. Others still include capital punishment even if the defendant successfully proves his crime falls under manslaughter. The sub-categories under manslaughter may sometimes lead to conditions under the murder of the second or third degree.

At the end of the day, it all depends on the intent to kill at the moment of the crime. Assaults and accidental deaths are just some of the cases that courts consider as acts of manslaughter. The judge and the jury pay attention to the whole scenario before declaring it under voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. To further understand the two forms of manslaughter, we added sample scenarios following our descriptions.

robber committing manslaughter
Image from Adobe Stock

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter sounds confusing because of the factors under actions without premeditation. Most suspects aim for this sentence by claiming they killed their victims in the heat of the moment. We associate this with cases where defendants claim they lost self-control during the homicide. When this happens, psychiatrists or psychologists get called to evaluate the mental state of the suspect. If they fail, the prosecution proceeds to try the suspect for murder.

You may get tried for voluntary manslaughter if you unintentionally killed a rival. During an argument, he or she may have provoked you into doing the unthinkable. If it results in their death, you may plead guilty and claim that you lost all self-control at the time of the crime. With this, you might receive a sentence of up to 11 years in prison if you pass a psych evaluation.

Involuntary Manslaughter

We consider homicide with no motive as involuntary manslaughter. This usually applies to suspects who caused deaths without any form of premeditation. You may associate a scenario where the victim happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Criminals who receive this sentence plead guilty for killing strangers.

Imagine hunting in a forest not knowing someone else was in the area. When hunting, you usually aim for any moving target, thinking it’s the animal you hope to catch. However, you accidentally shot and killed a person who just happened to be near your target. Investigators consider this whole ordeal as an unfortunate hunting accident resulting in involuntary manslaughter.

Judging Killers

Court of Justice and Law Trial
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After knowing the difference between murder and manslaughter, we can now understand the meticulousness of murder trials. Those in court need to treat most cases as murders because they aim to bring justice for the victim’s death. The severity of homicides led most of the US states to consider some forms of manslaughter as murder. Doing this brings more peace to the loved ones the deceased left behind. However, not all trials proceed with what the prosecution planned.

Most suspects show their determination in receiving lesser by sticking to types of manslaughter. As long as it’s not first-degree murder, defendants do their best to find any loophole in the evidence presented. Overall, we feel more at ease when we witness the determination of prosecutors in putting killers behind bars. Whether it’s murder or manslaughter, people who caused the death of others need to face responsibility for their actions.