What is Homicide Law?
Homicide law is an umbrella term used to describe a number of offenses that can be charged when the defendant has wrongfully caused the death of another human being. The specific homicide offense charged in a given case will depend upon the defendant’s mental state and subjective intentions at the time the crime was committed. Some homicides occur unintentionally, as the result of extremely reckless behavior. Others are committed following a period of deliberation and forethought by the defendant.
These factors can lead to vastly different sentences following a conviction. A lenient sentence may be appropriate in cases involving accidental death. Conversely, premeditated killings are punishable by life in prison, or by the death penalty in states that have not abolished it. Homicide cases are among the most serious of all criminal proceedings. Those accused of any type of homicide crime should seek immediate assistance from a qualified criminal defense attorney.
Statutory Murder Classifications
Historically, crimes such as homicide were a matter of common law, meaning they were created and defined through an evolving body of court decisions. In modern times, homicide laws are established by state legislatures and set forth in penal codes. The most egregious of these statutory offenses are typically labeled murder in the first degree, and murder in the second degree.
First degree murder is unique in that it requires that the defendant acted deliberately, dispassionately, and in a premeditated manner. For at least a brief moment before the killing took place, the defendant must have pondered the matter, and then consciously decided to commit the act. Second degree murder, on the other hand, does not require the element of premeditation. Besides that, the two crimes are identical.
The distinction between first and second degree murder will control which defenses are available. For example, because first degree murder requires that the defendant had a pre-existing intent to commit the crime, the defense of intoxication may be invoked. That is to say, if the defendant was too intoxicated to premeditate on the act, then the element of intent is missing, and the defendant cannot be convicted. Second degree murder does not require a specific mental state, so intoxication is not available as a defense.
Criminal justice systems have always recognized some form of reduced culpability for killings that are committed in the “heat of passion.” Modern penal codes define the crime of voluntary manslaughter as murder provoked by a sudden and intense passion that caused the defendant to lose control. The events that brought about the emotional reaction must have been of a type that would lead a reasonable person to lose control. Thus, if the defendant reacted irrationally, the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter is not appropriate.
Whether a murder charge will be reduced to voluntary manslaughter can also depend upon the amount of time that passed between the provocation and the killing. The longer this cooling off period, the less likely the killing will qualify as voluntary manslaughter.
The related crime of involuntary manslaughter differs greatly from both voluntary manslaughter and murder, in that these killings are not committed on purpose. Rather, they are a result of criminal negligence by the defendant. To sustain a conviction for involuntary manslaughter, it must have been foreseeable that the defendant’s extreme carelessness could lead to the death of the victim.
Death Caused in the Commission of a Felony
A large percentage of homicide convictions are based on killings that occur while defendants are engaged in the commission of a separate crime. Often referred to as “felony murder,” these homicides are based on the idea that a person who commits a dangerous crime should be held responsible for the resulting collateral damage. Nevertheless, the law places some limits on this type of criminal liability.
For example, to be guilty of felony murder, the underlying crime must be a serious one. Penal codes contain lists of these crimes. They usually include robbery, arson, rape, and other violent felonies. The government must also prove the defendant is guilty of the underlying crime. Therefore, if the jury finds the evidence is insufficient to convict the defendant of the underlying crime, the defendant must also be acquitted of felony murder.
There are also restrictions on whose death can form the basis of a felony murder charge. The killing of bystanders, police officers, and other innocent victims will satisfy these statutes, but the killing of a co-conspirator generally will not. Finally, once the underlying crime (and the defendant’s flight from the crime scene) is complete, liability for felony murder homicide ends. Any subsequent deaths cannot be charged under this theory.
Homicide Defense Requires a Skilled Attorney
If you are accused of causing someone’s death, you need an experienced attorney on your side. Every bit of evidence must be gathered, reviewed, and used to form a defense that will persuade a jury that you are not responsible. To learn what defenses are available to you, contact an attorney today.
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Articles About Homicide Law
- Escalating and Deescalating Murder ChargesOn June 5, 2011, there was a case of a transgendered female who was out for a night on the town when she and some of friends were harassed by a group of young men. It started out with harsh words and eventually descended into violence. When she walked away, she was assaulted by one of the men, and she took a pair of scissors from her purse. She stabbed the assaulter, leading to his death.
- What Does “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Mean in Criminal Proceedings?The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine prevents the prosecution from admitting certain evidence into a criminal case after it has been tainted by a primary illegality. This doctrine is meant to remove illegally-acquired evidence from negatively impacting a criminal defendant.
- Accidental Shooting in New Jersey Involving Police OfficerA 23 year old Pine Beach police officer has been suspended without pay, arrested for drunk driving, and could face criminal charges for a shooting incident that occurred shortly before 6:00 am on Friday, January 16, 2015 in Lacey Township, NJ. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the shooting and has indicated that the shooting may have been accidental.
- Which Is Cheaper, Execution or Life in Prison Without Parole?It is an age old question that many of us have debated at one point or another: should executions be legal? Are they an effective deterrent and means of punishment, or is it an expensive and anachronistic practice from a less civilized time? Regardless of where you come down on the debate, one key factor that always seems to come up is cost. So, which is cheaper: execution or life in prison without parole?
- What Are the Laws Against Looting?After a natural catastrophe, riots, terrorist attack, or other devastating event, it is not uncommon for some members of society to take to the streets and begin taking almost anything they want. Sometimes looters only take necessities, like food, water, and toilet paper, but more often than not, looters are taking items of value like televisions, computers, jewelery, etc. How does the law deal with this and what are a person's rights when trying to prevent looting?
- What is a Wrongful Death Claim?Whenever someone dies it is normal for the survivors to want to find an explanation and a person to blame. Unfortunately, in some cases, nobody is to blame, and it was just that person's time. But, in other cases, when the death could have been avoided and someone else was in a position to prevent it, a wrongful death may have occurred.
- African American Women Disproportionately At Risk For Death by Domestic ViolenceDomestic violence can happen anywhere and is not bound by race, religion, or socio-economic status. But, recent studies show that African American women are at three times the risk of experiencing a lethal domestic violence event than any other racial groups in America. Indeed, domestic violence murders are among the leading causes of death of black women ages 15 to 35.
- Washington Shipyard Shooting Stirs Debate Over Second Amendment Right to Bear ArmsOn Monday, September 16, 2013, Aaron Alexis opened fire in the Washington Naval Shipyard, killing 12 naval and civilian personnel before he was ultimately killed himself by law enforcement. However, much to the surprise of the general public, the weapon that Alexis used to kill 12 innocent people was legal, since when he purchased it, Alexis had no record of either a misdemeanor or felony conviction.
- Can Texting While Driving Lead to a Murder ChargeOn February 20, 2011, a teenage driver was sending a text message when he accidentally swerved across the middle line and killed the driver of a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. The incident was clearly an accident, but was the teen's action of composing text messages while driving so wanton and reckless that it could amount to criminal homicide?
- Why is Physician Assisted Suicide IllegalThose with sick and elderly loved ones forced to live out the end of their lives in pain have often wondered why physician assisted suicide is illegal and what laws prevent it. The answer is a mix of politics, historic legal precedent, and the black letter of the law.
- All Criminal Law Articles
Homicide Law - US
- ABA - Criminal Justice Section
The Criminal Justice Section has primary responsibility for the American Bar Association's work on solutions to issues involving crime, criminal law, and the administration of criminal and juvenile justice. The Section plays an active leadership role in bringing the views of the ABA to the attention of federal and state courts, Congress, and other federal and state judicial, legislative, and executive policy-making bodies. The Section also serves as a resource to its members on issues in the forefront of change in the criminal justice arena.
- Euthanasia, Physician Assisted Suicide, Mercy Killing - Justifiable Homicide
Assisted suicide laws around the world are clear in some nations but unclear – if they exist at all – in others. Just because a country has not defined its criminal code on this specific action does not mean all assisters will go free. It is a complicated state of affairs. A great many people instinctively feel that suicide and assisted suicide are such individual acts of freedom and free will that they assume there are no legal prohibitions. This fallacy has brought many people into trouble with the law. While suicide is no longer a crime – and where it is because of a failure to update the law it is not enforced – assistance remains a crime almost everywhere by some statute or other.
- Fetal Homicide - State Laws
The debate over fetal rights is not new to the legislative arena. Every year pro-life and pro-choice advocates vie for the upper hand in this contentious issue. In recent years, states have expanded this debate to include the issue of fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women. In some states, legislation has increased the criminal penalties for crimes involving pregnant women. These laws have focused on the harm done to a pregnant woman and the subsequent loss of her pregnancy, but not on the rights of the fetus.
- National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NACJD) - Homicide Data Resource Guide
This Homicide Data Resource Guide was designed by the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NACJD) staff to provide easy access to data collections related to homicide. For instance, it provides quick links to certain types of homicide studies and links to studies available for online data analysis. This resource guide also provides useful information for secondary analysis of NACJD data collections, such as customized help for complex data collections, information on how to obtain restricted access data, and links to funding opportunities and publications.
- National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) Violent Crime - Homicide
NCJRS offers extensive reference and referral services to help you find answers to your questions about crime and justice-related research, policy, and practice. Search Questions & Answers to access hundreds of questions related to juvenile and criminal justice, victim assistance, drug policy, and NCJRS services.
- The Castle Doctrine - Justifiable Homicide
The Castle Doctrine, or the Defense of Habitation Law is a derived from English Common Law. The law defines ones home, or in some cases any place that you legally occupy, as a place where you have the liberty to be free from trespass. It also gives you the right to defend your life, or the life of another who legally occupies the “castle” with deadly force if the situation warrants it. In a legal proceeding your actions can be defended as justifiable under the Castle Doctrine.
- United States Department of Justice (USDOJ)
Our mission: to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.
- Vehicular Homicide - Overview
Vehicular homicide (also known as vehicular manslaughter) in most states in the United States, is a crime. In general, it involves death that results from the negligent operation of a vehicle, or more so a result from driving whilst committing an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony. In the Model Penal Code there is no separate category of vehicular homicide, and vehicular homicides that involve negligence. Both are included in the overall category of negligent homicide. It can be compared to the offence of dangerous driving causing death in other countries.
Organizations Related to Homicide Law
- American Society of Criminology
The American Society of Criminology is an international organization whose members pursue scholarly, scientific, and professional knowledge concerning the measurement, etiology, consequences, prevention, control, and treatment of crime and delinquency.
- Center for Homicide Research
The Center for Homicide Research is a unique, volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization addressing the issue of homicide in our communities. The mission of the Center for Homicide Research is to promote greater knowledge and understanding of the unique nature of homicide through sound empirical research, critical analysis, and effective community partnerships. The three-fold goals of the Center are to increase case solvability, to articulate homicide issues and to reduce incidence of homicide. Our ultimate aim is to prevent homicides.
- Homicide Research Working Group (HRWG)
Though homicide research, dataset development, and intervention programs literally involve life-and-death issues, work in lethal violence had been scattered among numerous disciplines and largely uncoordinated. In an attempt to address this problem, practical and academic homicide experts from criminology, public health, demography, geography, medicine, sociology, criminal justice and a variety of other disciplines created the Homicide Research Working Group.
- International Homicide Investigators Association (IHIA)
The primary mission of the International Homicide Investigators Association (IHIA) is to assist and support law enforcement agencies and death investigations professionals by providing leadership, training, resources and expertise necessary to solve cases.
- Justice for Homicide Victims
Justice For Homicide Victims (JHV), a non-profit organization. We provide support in dealing with the pain and suffering associated with the homicide of a loved one when the victims’ survivors are usually totally misunderstood by their friends and relatives. We assist homicide victim survivors by providing them with their rights under current laws and provide support of victims who fight for their rights. Mission Statement: To be the champion of the legal rights of survivors of homicide victims by providing them information about victim rights in all aspects of the criminal justice system.
- Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) - Homicide: Survivors / Co-victims
The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) was established by the 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to oversee diverse programs that benefit victims of crime.
Publications Related to Homicide Law
- Bureau of Justice Statistics - Homicide Trends in the U.S.
Provides information on homicide trends using various criteria.
- NACJD - Data Related Literature - Homicide
NACJD makes criminal justice data available to the public for secondary analysis. We do not produce published reports, statistics, charts, or other analyses based upon data holdings. However, users interested in such publications can search our Online Bibliography of Data-Related Literature for publications related to NACJD data collections (and ICPSR data collections in general).