Murder Law

What is Murder?

Murder, or more accurately, Criminal Homicide, is the unlawful taking of the life of another. Most states have varying degrees of murder and manslaughter, such as premeditated (or first degree murder), or murder committed during the commission of another crime (sometimes called felony murder). Not all states have adopted the Model Penal Code to classify different types of murder. Nevertheless, it serves as the basis of the criminal codes of 2/3 of the states in the U.S.


The most serious type of criminal homicide is Murder. Murder is typically broken down further into several sub-categories; commonly first and second degree murder.

First Degree Murder

First degree murder is the most serious of all homicide charges, and applies to the intentional killing of a person after planning (or premeditation). It requires malice (evil intent) and forethought (planning). These cases are usually considered among the most heinous crimes and as such, the most severe punishments are reserved for them including life in prison or the death penalty.

Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder, on the other hand, usually applies to cases in which the killing may have been intentional but was not premeditated. These are often referred to as "crimes of passion." A common example is the jealous husband that flies into a homicidal rage and kills his wife and her lover when he finds them in bed together.

Some states also consider grossly wanton and reckless behavior that results in the death of another to be second degree murder. This applies in situations where one's actions were so wanton and reckless that the death of another person was almost assured, even if the killing was not intentional.

Second degree murder is also very serious, and in most situations the defendant could face decades to life in prison, though the death sentence is not a possibility in these cases.


The charge of manslaughter is reserved for instances where the accused did not plan the crime nor did he or she intend for the victim to die because of his or her actions. A common example is the fatal car accident, particularly when the victim is a pedestrian.

Sentences for those convicted of manslaughter vary widely depending on state laws and the circumstances of the event in question. Typically these sentences are less than those given for second degree murder.

Justifiable Homicide

Justifiable homicide is not murder at all, as it is not considered criminal. Rather, it is the taking of another's life in circumstances in which the killing was necessary as the only means of preventing the murder of one's self or to protect another. Because the killing was justifiable, the person who committed the killing will not be held criminally liable for the death, though civil liability may still exist (i.e. the decedent's family could bring a wrongful death lawsuit).

Other Homicides

Some states have developed other forms of homicide crimes. A common example is felony murder. In a felony murder, a person dies while the defendant is committing another crime. For example, if several people are fleeing from a crime scene in one car and their vehicle strikes and kills a pedestrian, all of the people in the car may be charged with felony murder, not just the driver. This is true even though they may not have intended to kill anyone.

States' laws are constantly evolving and diverging, so other forms of homicide may exist or may come into existence in the future, particularly in states that do not observe the Model Penal Code.

As noted, homicide, whether justifiable or not, is always serious. If you or someone you know has been involved with a homicide contact an attorney for assistance in dealing with this matter as soon as possible. You can find additional information about different types of criminal homicide and murder by visiting the resources below or by consulting your state's legislation regarding murder laws on our Criminal Code by State page. You can also find an attorney in your area that specializes in criminal law by visiting our Law Firms page.


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