Murder vs. Manslaughter: Differences in Legal Terms Simply Explained

Murder and manslaughter both result in a person’s life ending prematurely. But what are the legal differences between these words? Keep reading to learn the difference between murder and manslaughter, and why that difference can result in very different consequences.

difference between murder and manslaughter difference between murder and manslaughter

The Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Murder and manslaughter are both types of homicide, which is the act of killing another person. But determining whether a killing is murder or manslaughter depends on the perpetrator’s intentions. Did they act in order to end another person’s life, or was the death an unintended consequence of reckless behavior?

The legal definitions of murder and manslaughter are:

  • murder (n) - an action intended to result in a person’s death; the act of killing someone with malice aforethought
  • manslaughter (n) - an action in which a person’s death occurs, but is not the intention of the action; the act of killing without malice aforethought

Murder can also be used as a verb to describe the act of killing someone with malice. Manslaughter only has a noun form. Both words describe the act of homicide, but are nuanced in how intentional that act was.

Legal Consequences of Murder vs. Manslaughter

Another difference between murder and manslaughter are the criminal sentences that defendents can receive when they are found guilty. Defense attorneys would much rather obtain a charge of manslaughter for their clients because they spend much less time in prison. A charge of murder can bring a very long prison sentence, life in prison, or even the death penalty (depending on whether capital punishment is legal in that jurisdiction).

Degrees of Murder

Just like every legal situation, the charge of murder or manslaughter depends on the details of the case. A prosecutor who wants to charge a suspect with murder must gather evidence to prove that they acted with the premeditated intention to kill the victim. Depending on how much evidence they have, they can charge the suspect with two degrees of murder (although three states also include third-degree as a possible charge).

First-Degree Murder

Someone who committed first-degree murder acted with premeditation and the full intention to end another person’s life. It is a willful, deliberate act, and is the most serious charge of murder. Prosecutors must prove that the suspect desired someone’s death or was indifferent to their death.

A few examples of cases that would likely end in a first-degree murder charge include:

  • Stalking someone in order to kill them
  • Bringing a weapon to a public place with the intention of killing someone
  • Attacking someone with enough violence to show malice and intention of killing them
  • Hiring another person to kill a victim

Another type of first-degree murder is called felony murder, which involves the incidental death of a person during a dangerous crime. The rule of transferred intent mandates that the intention of committing a felony transfers to the intention of murder. Examples of felony murder include:

  • Committing arson to a house that results in someone’s death
  • Killing a homeowner in the act of robbing their house
  • Abusing a spouse so severely that they die
  • Kidnapping a person who later dies of injuries from the kidnapping
  • Stealing a car with a passenger inside, then getting into an accident that takes their life

A prosecutor can try for a felony murder change in these situations. However, it depends on whether they can convince the jury that the defendant is guilty. Many times, prosecutors have more evidence for second-degree murder than for felony murder.

prisoner in jail with guards

Second-Degree Murder

While first-degree murder involves planning and intent, second-degree murder is defined as a spontaneous act of homicide. Most second-degree charges still require evidence of the defendant’s intent to end the other person’s life. Examples of situations involving second-degree murder include:

  • Having a verbal dispute with someone that escalates physically, resulting in an impulsive act that kills the other person
  • A case of road rage that causes one person to kill the other person
  • Driving a car into a crowd (an act classified as depraved heart murder)
  • Attacking someone with the intent of hurting them, but accidentally killing them instead (known as reckless disregard)

Notice that nearly every situation occurs in the heat of the moment with high emotions. A charge of second-degree murder typically has a lower sentence than first-degree murder, which is why defense attorneys would rather face a second-degree murder charge.

Degrees of Manslaughter

The difference between murder and manslaughter is clearer on paper than it is in the courtroom. Typically, a person is charged with manslaughter when there is not enough evidence to prove that they intended to kill the victim. There are two degrees of manslaughter that a prosecutor can charge a defendant with: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

The difference between voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder is quite nuanced. Neither act is premeditated, but second-degree murder involves a defendant knowing that their

actions will end another person’s life. Voluntary manslaughter includes cases where the perpetrator loses control due to provocation or temporary emotional instability.

Possible examples of voluntary manslaughter include:

  • Believing that one’s life is in danger and reacting in a way that takes someone’s life (known as imperfect self-defense)
  • Being bullied into an emotional state in which someone reacts by killing the bully
  • Having a mental illness that causes delusions of harm by others, resulting in the defendant lashing out against others
  • Becoming emotionally distraught at the news of a partner’s affair and killing them in the same moment

Essentially, the difference between a charge of voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder depends on the amount of evidence and the skill of the defense attorney. If a jury believes that the defendant reacted in a way that a typical person would, accidentally resulting in someone’s death, then they may be more likely to find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

courtroom trial

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is known as the least culpable homicide charge. People who commit involuntary manslaughter have no intention of killing or even harming another person. However, their reckless or negligent actions did lead to another person’s death.

Examples of involuntary manslaughter include:

  • Accidentally hitting a pedestrian with your car while driving and texting
  • A doctor whose insufficient attention or care leads to the death of a patient
  • Accidentally leaving a young child in a hot car
  • Incorrectly cleaning a loading gun, causing it to fire out the window and kill a passerby
  • Dealing a fatal amount of drugs to an addict, indirectly causing them to overdose

Many cases fall under either intoxication or vehicular manslaughter charges. In some states, involuntary manslaughter is classified as a misdemeanor, which may result in a lighter sentence.

The Criminal Justice System

The difference between murder and manslaughter has everything to do with intent. However, in the modern criminal justice system, it also has to do with legal argumentation, evidence, and jury conviction. Check out another article for more examples of felonies and misdemeanors in the American justice system.