When Is It Self-Defense and When Is It Manslaughter?

Manslaughter and murder are sometimes associated with a claim of self-defense. Self-defense can alter a criminal case so that the accused is not criminally culpable for the homicide.


Murder is the unlawful killing of another. It is often based on a person having premeditation and the intent to kill. Consequences for murder are among some of the most strict in the country. The traditional definition of murder defined it as an unlawful killing that someone committed with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought means that the person gave consideration to killing, not that he or she meant to kill out of spite or ill will. In addition, murder can exist if the murderer intended to inflict serious bodily harm that causes the victim’s death or if he or she behaves in such a way that shows extreme, reckless disregard for human life.

Murder is often defined by a specific degree. Some murders are considered more dangerous and serious than others, often resulting in murder in the first degree charges. First degree murder may arise when the killing is deliberate and premediated, such as if the killer is lying in wait. Using dangerous items like bombs can also result in a first degree murder charge. Another time when first degree murder charges may arise is if the killing happens during the commission of a dangerous felony, usually if the death is foreseeable as likely by committing the felony.

When there is not such premeditation or other dangerous aspects of the case, the charge tends to be for second degree murder.


Manslaughter is considered a lesser crime than murder. However, it is still considered a crime. In some cases, circumstances that would usually be considered murder may be mitigated due to manslaughter based on extenuating circumstances. Manslaughter does not require malice aforethought. Because of this distinction, the punishment tends to be much less than the punishment for murder although punishments are still very serious.

There are usually two types of manslaughter charges: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter charges may occur when a person who is strongly provoked kills someone else under the heat of passion. This legal theory may arise when a person kills someone who has injured his or her child, has found his or her spouse in an act of adultery or under other conditions defined under the manslaughter statute.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when someone acts in a criminally negligent or reckless way that causes the death of another. This type of charge is more likely in cases involving automotive accidents, such as when a person’s drunk driving results in a death.

Self Defense Killing

Although someone may kill someone in self defense, this type of killing is not considered a crime like manslaughter or murder is. The American justice system recognizes the right of someone to protect himself or herself from harm. In order for a self defense to apply, the defendant must have believed that he or she was in imminent danger of harm and that the use and degree of force that he or she used was reasonably necessary to protect his or her safety or that of a third person.

Different states have different guidelines regarding the application of self defense. For example, some states impose a duty to retreat on the defendant in which he or she must first attempt to get away from the source of danger before exerting force in order to assert this defense. Other states only permit someone not to retreat if he or she was in his or her own home at the time of the attack. Other factors may be relevant in the application of this defense, such as who was the initial aggressor, who escalated a dispute and whether the defendant was engaged in criminal activity at the time that he or she asserts the defense.

Accidental Killing

Another possibility is that someone may commit an accidental killing. If his or her behavior did not rise to a criminal level, he or she cannot be held criminally responsible. However, there may still be civil liability if the conduct was negligent but not criminally negligent. In this case, a person may be sued for causing the death of someone else.

Legal Assistance

A person who is facing serious criminal charges involving murder or manslaughter may choose to contact a criminal defense lawyer for assistance. He or she can explain the defendant’s rights and the differences in murder, manslaughter and self-defense killings in the jurisdiction where the criminal charges are pending. He or she can carefully analyze the circumstances of the case to determine whether a mitigating argument may be viable. He or she can also help

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case.

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