Legal Definitions of Murder and Manslaughter

As a society, we tend to believe that some types of unlawful homicides (i.e. unlawfully killings) are more morally offensive than others. For example, if someone accidentally causes a fatal car crash, the perpetrator is often thought to be less morally culpable than someone who plots their wife’s death for months before killing her in cold blood. Therefore, each state has laws that divide unlawful killings into different classes of criminal offenses based on the moral culpability of the offender. Most importantly, each state’s criminal code separates unlawful homicides into two categories: murders and manslaughters.

Definition of Murder

Each state has its laws that define murder, however, each state’s statutes generally state that murder the “unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought,” however, this definition does not include an act that results in the death of a fetus if the act where the mother consented to a legal abortion or the was committed by a licensed physician or surgeon because the resulting childbirth would more likely than not have resulted in the death of the mother or the fetus.

Note that in order for an unlawful homicide to constitute murder, the act must have been committed with “malice aforethought.” Such malice can either be express malice (i.e. a manifested deliberate intention to unlawfully take away someone else’s life) or implied malice (i.e. when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances surrounding the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart).  

Definition of Manslaughter

People who commit manslaughter are often thought to be less morally culpable than those who commit murder because murder involves malice aforethought while manslaughter does not. In most states, manslaughter can be either voluntary or involuntary:

• Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. For example, if you come home and find your spouse in bed with their lover and consequently kill the lover in a fit of rage then you have likely committed voluntary manslaughter under your state’s law.

• Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice either during the commission of an unlawful act (not amounting to a felony), or during the commission of a lawful act which might produce an unlawful death, or without due caution and circumspection.

When You Need Legal Help

If you have been charged with a crime, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco for help in defending against these charges.

Thanks to the Morales Law Firm for their insight into criminal law and your constitutional rights.