Homicide is the act of one human killing another, the ultimate crime. I must have seen thousands of films and read hundreds of books dealing with murder. You often hear those dubious factoids that by the time the average child has finished elementary school, they will have seen 8,000 murders on TV. And by the age of 18 they will have been exposed to 200,000 of violent acts on TV. I am in my sixth decade and I have no idea how many fictional killings I have seen or read, but it will surely be an enormous number. And it’s not just me. If you type murder into the IMDB you get 200 results for films TV series and documentaries. I’m sure this is just scratching the surface. These are just films and TV shows that have the word in the title. Despite being a connoisseur of mystery and suspense, I sometimes get confused about the different classes of homicide. In this post I intend to look at the hierarchy of homicide crimes, going from the most serious in descending order. Where a crime is situated on this ladder depends on what the perpetrator was thinking at the time of the action that caused the victim’s death.
At the top of the ladder is first-degree murder. This involves unlawful intentional killing with malice aforethought; the victim’s death must be premeditated. First-degree murder involves a rational, cold-blooded decision to kill. The period of premeditation required to support a charge of first degree murder doesn’t have to be protracted. What is more important is defendant’s formulation of a plan to commit the murder, and opportunity to reconsider before committing this act. It is about the quality of thought that went into the decision to kill—not the quantity. Nevertheless, the more time spent making the decision, the more likely it is that a court will find premeditation. The punishment for first-degree murder is harsh. A conviction for first-degree murder could mean a long stretch in prison, or in many countries, capital punishment
On the next rung we find second-degree murder, which can get you 20 years or more in prison. Second degree murder is also intentionally caused, but the defendant does not premeditate or deliberate before committing the murder. The language talks of impulsive killing, death resulting from an intent to cause serious harm and depraved indifference to human life. A bar fight that end in the los of life is the classic example,
Voluntary manslaughter is a homicide crime that is a special exception to the crime of second-degree murder. If the defendant qualifies, his punishment can typically be reduced to half of what it would have been if they had been convicted of second-degree murder. Voluntary manslaughter is a partial defence to a murder charge. While you’re still guilty of homicide, it is seen as considerably less serious. This doctrine serves to mitigate the punishment in cases of extreme anger. It seems to reflect a testosterone-driven worldview. It was created in a time of male-on-male violence and spousal adultery. The latter is the classic crime of passion. A man finds his wife in bed with another man, and kills his wife, the other man, or indeed both. Judges decided that this shouldn’t be classified as murder; the killing was only partly the fault of the defendant, and the adulterous lovers should also share some of the blame. The crime was reduced to voluntary manslaughter. Of course the early common law judges who devised the doctrine were all men. It does seem to belong to a bygone age. Within involuntary manslaughter there is imperfect self-defence. This can occur when a person is being threatened but then counters with a force disproportionately greater than that used against them.
At the bottom of this ladder is involuntary manslaughter. The crime of involuntary manslaughter generally consists of causing another person’s death without the intent to kill, but where a death occurs through the negligent or reckless actions of the defendant. The classic example is someone who fails to stop at a red light and who subsequently kills another driver or pedestrian.
This is my brief tour of the law of homicide. I hope it has been useful it was necessarily brief. I did not delve into the concept of causation in law, which I might look into in a future blog post.