The Crime of Homicide
Homicide is the killing of one human being by another human being. And although the term homicide is sometimes used synonymously with murder, the term homicide is broader in scope than murder, with murder being a form of criminal homicide, and other forms of homicide not necessarily constituting a criminal act (i.e., killings resulting from criminal negligence or reckless disregard for human life are manslaughter charges). Justifiable homicide includes killing by soldiers in time of war, and use of deadly force by police in the apprehension of a suspect.
Murder is perhaps the single most serious criminal offense ever committed. Historically murder was the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, with the term aforethought not necessarily meaning that the killer planned or premeditated on the killing, or that the killer felt malice toward the victim, but rather, aforethought referred to a level of intent or recklessness that separated murder from other killings and warranted stiffer punishment.
Under most statutes in the United States, murder comes in four varieties: (1) intentional murder, (2) a killing that results from the intent to do serious bodily injury, (3) a killing that results from a depraved heart or extreme recklessness, and (4) murder committed by an accomplice during the commission of, attempt of, or flight from a felony.
Intentional murder involves a murderous state of mind and can be assigned to killings when there is a deliberate intention manifested unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow human being or when no considerable provocation is present, or when the circumstances surrounding the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart. A killing that results from the intent to do serious bodily injury is the next level of murder, and encompasses a defendant intending to do serious bodily injury or acting extremely recklessly. For example, if an aggressor punches a victim in the nose, intending only to injure the victim’s face, the aggressor may be charged with murder if the victim dies from the blow. The infliction of the serious bodily injury becomes the equivalent of intent to kill when the victim dies. Under the abandoned and malignant heart theory of murder, a person can be charged with murder if a killing results from gross negligence. For instance, if a man accidentally shoots and kills someone while practicing the shooting a firearm in his backyard, he can be charged with murder.
Felony murder statutes come into play when a person is attempting to commit a specified felony and during the commission of the felony, during an attempt to commit the felony, or during flight from the felony, or attempted felony, kills someone. For example, if two persons rob a bank and during the robbery one of them shoots and kills a security guard, the accomplice who did not actually pull the trigger may nevertheless be charged with criminal homicide.
Most state law in the criminal justice system provides for two levels of murder, murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree. In these states, any intentional, unlawful killing done without justification or excuse is a second-degree murder, punishable with a long prison term or a prison term for life without parole. A first-degree murder conviction is a more serious offense than second-degree murder, and labels the murder as one that was accomplished with an aggravating or a special circumstance. An aggravating or special circumstance is some circumstance or situation which makes the crime especially heinous or somehow worthy of extra punishment.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding a killing, a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to many years in prison, a prison sentence with no possibility of parole, or death. Second-degree murder usually is punished with more than twenty years in prison, while first-degree murder is punished with a life term in prison without the possibility of parole; and in states where the death penalty is practiced, first-degree murder is punishable by death. In addition, a defendant’s criminal history may affect sentencing for a murder conviction, with more time being given to a person with a long history of criminal behavior.
The best defenses to a murder charge are provocation and self-defense. If the defendant acted completely in self-defense, the defendant may be relieved of all criminal liability, or at least the charge may be reduced from murder to manslaughter. Provocation rarely produces complete absolution, but may reduce the defendant’s liability in a case of criminal homicide. Another defense to a murder charge is insanity. If a defendant was suffering from a defect of the mind and did not know what they were doing, or did not know that what they were doing was wrong, they may be found not guilty by reason of insanity (guilty but mentally ill) and confined to a mental institution instead of a prison. Other defenses for a murder case include necessity, accident, insufficient proof or evidence, factual innocence, and intoxication.