Understanding the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

People often use the terms "murder," "manslaughter," and "homicide" as if they were synonymous and interchangeable.  In reality, homicide can mean murder or manslaughter, while manslaughter and murder are not the same crime.  In fact, there are major differences between these offenses with regard to how each is defined - and how each is penalized if a defendant is convicted.  It may even be possible for your criminal defense lawyer to reduce your murder charges to manslaughter charges. That could make the difference between spending five years in prison, or life behind bars.

It’s natural to panic if you’ve been charged with any crime - particularly homicide.  The very word conjures up images of heavily publicized trials, maximum security prisons, and even capital punishment.  However, while it’s true that any type of homicide charge is a legal crisis for the defendant, "homicide" does not always mean "murder."  Believe it or not, Pennsylvania categorizes certain forms of homicide as misdemeanors rather than felonies.  Many homicide defendants will not face the death penalty, even if they plead or are found guilty.

The following are recognized as distinct offenses in accordance with Pennsylvania’s criminal statutes:

Under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2501 (Criminal Homicide), "Criminal homicide shall be classified as murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter."  But how is this classification determined?  The answer, as we will discuss in greater depth below, lies in the defendant’s intent.

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It goes without saying that manslaughter and murder are charged for the same reason: the death of another individual.  The key factor that distinguishes murder from manslaughter is not the end result of the crime, but the defendant’s alleged motives and thought processes during and prior to the alleged commission of the crime.  In other words, murder and manslaughter are distinguished not by their ultimate effects, but by the intent of the defendant during and leading up to the act itself.  The significance of intent is clearly highlighted by the definitions supplied for each offense.

First degree murder, for example, is defined as "intentional killing" under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2502(a).  However, as the term implies, voluntary manslaughter also involves deliberate killing.  The offenses are separated only by the defendant’s thought process during the alleged act.

In order for an act of intentional killing to be charged as voluntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder, the defendant must have been, "at the time of the killing," "acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation," either by the person who was killed or another individual who was the defendant’s intended target.

By comparison, first degree murder involves no element of "passion" or "provocation," and is often described as "premeditated murder."  Indeed, Pennsylvania defines "intentional killing" - the core component of first degree murder - as "killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing."  Premeditation does not necessarily have to involve weeks or months of intensive planning, as films and movies so often (erroneously) depict.  Pennsylvania law does not supply clear or fixed time limits that define premeditation.  This ambiguity underscores the importance of experienced legal representation.

The difference between first degree murder and involuntary manslaughter is even more stark.  Involuntary manslaughter involves acting unlawfully "in a reckless or grossly negligent manner" which leads to the accidental death of another person.  For example, reckless driving or negligent property maintenance could inadvertently cause the (albeit preventable) death of another person, even if the defendant had no desire or intent to harm the victim.  In civil law, recklessness and negligence are major components of most personal injury and wrongful death claims.

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These distinctions are important for defendants because some forms of homicide are penalized more harshly than others.  In the event of a conviction or guilty plea, the defendant’s intent and the circumstances of the victim’s death can be the difference between spending several years in prison and receiving the death penalty or spending life in prison.

Pennsylvania homicide offenses are subject to the following penalties:

(Note that involuntary manslaughter becomes a second degree felony in cases where the victim was 11 years old or younger, and was "in the care, custody or control of the person who caused the death."  Second degree felonies are subject to 10-year prison terms and maximum fines of $25,000.)

While Governor Wolf’s death penalty moratorium has effectively suspended Pennsylvania’s use of capital punishment, the longevity of the order remains to be seen.  In February, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the moratorium, describing it as "flagrantly unconstitutional."

If you’re being charged with homicide in Philadelphia, or if someone you love has been arrested for murder or manslaughter, it is absolutely critical to seek legal representation immediately.  The defense attorneys of Krasner & Long have years of experience handling all types of homicide charges and have achieved favorable results for clients.  To set up your free, confidential legal consultation, call our law offices right away at (215) 882-9752.

 

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