Homicide VS. Murder: What’s The Difference?

High contrast image of a crime scene with evidence markers.

The words “homicide” and “murder” are often mistakenly used interchangeably in TV shows, movies, and even in the media. However, these two words do not have the same meaning. In fact, the legal definitions of these two terms are quite different. Homicide is the act of one human being killing another and is not necessarily a crime, such as killing in self-defense or by accident. On the contrary, murder is an intentional, unlawful, criminal homicide and is a capital offense in some states. In that way, murder is just one form of homicide, the most serious form. So, all murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders.


What’s The Difference Between Homicide & Murder?

There is a lot of confusion between the meanings of homicide and murder. The legal definitions of these terms are set forth by the penal codes at both the state and federal levels. Even though there are some variations between jurisdictions, all agree that the two do not have the same legal meaning:


— Homicide

Homicide is legally defined in common law as the act of one person killing another. It is, therefore, a much broader term than murder. There are several types of homicide as defined by criminal law. For example, there is self-defense homicide, vehicular homicide, justifiable homicide, criminally negligent homicide, unlawful or criminal homicide, and intentional homicide. All of these types of homicide have different meanings under the law, with varying degrees of severity.

— Murder

Murder is a type of intentional criminal homicide, and the definitions of murder can vary from state to state. In order for a killing to be considered as murder, it must meet the state’s statutory requirement. Most state laws agree that murder requires the killing to be, 1. unlawful—meaning there was no justification, such as self-defense or the defense of others—and,  2. with malice aforethought.

Malice aforethought is the legal term for premeditated, or pre-planning, the intended death of another. This means that there was an intentional killing of another person and that the killer thought about it, even for a few seconds, beforehand. Malicious intent is often proven through the actions of the murderer. However, most penal codes have expanded this legal definition to also include:

  • The intentional infliction of bodily harm that causes the victim’s death
  • Behavior that shows an extreme and reckless disregard for life and results in the victim’s death

In addition to these two degrees, there is also something called felony murder. This is where a person’s death results from the commission of a felony, such as arson, rape, or robbery. Felony murder, unlike first-degree murder, does not require malice aforethought for the killing. The killer just has to have the intent to commit the underlying felony.


Consequences For Homicide

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There is a vast array of consequences for homicide because there are so many levels and degrees of homicide. In fact, there are some homicides that are not considered illegal at all and therefore have no consequences. For instance, if you kill someone by genuinely acting in self-defense, then you have committed homicide but have not committed a crime. However, self-defense is a defense against a criminal charge based on a “reasonable person” standard outlined in criminal law which must be proven by a defense lawyer in court. Seek legal advice from a criminal defense attorney if you are charged with criminal homicide.

Manslaughter is a type of homicide that is less severe than murder and carries lesser — yet still quite serious ramifications. Vehicular manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter are types of criminally negligent and unintentional homicide where one person acts with a reckless disregard for human life and their actions result in the unintentional killing of another person. Voluntary manslaughter is the killing of another person in the heat of passion without premeditation or pre-planning. The punishment for manslaughter charges in most states is 4 to 10 years in prison.


Consequences For Murder

Yellow police tape which says "Crime Scene Do Not Cross."

Murder is the most serious form of homicide, and the consequences of murder depend on the degree of murder as defined in the state’s penal code. In general, murder is a capital offense, so it is considered to be one of, if not the most, serious crime. For those reasons, murder carries extremely heavy penalties, including the possibility of life in prison or even the death penalty, depending upon the jurisdiction.

Murder charges are broken down by degrees that carry mandatory minimums. This means that the judge or jury passing the sentence cannot go below the statutory requirements. Most states agree on at least two degrees of murder, and some have a third degree of murder.

The most serious is murder in the first degree, or capital murder, which requires the premeditated killing of another person with malice aforethought. If the murder is committed in conjunction with the commission of a crime such as rape, robbery, or arson, it is called felony murder, which is a subset of murder in the first degree. A first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. However, aggregating or special circumstances, such as murdering a police officer or torturing the victim in a cruel manner first, can increase the punishment to the maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, or in some states, the death penalty.

Second-degree murder is like first-degree murder in that the killer had malicious intent but without the elements of pre-planning. Even though they cannot receive capital punishment, murder in the second degree is still a very serious offense with a lengthy prison sentence, typically 15 years to life imprisonment.

A few states recognize voluntary manslaughter as third-degree murder, which is an intentional murder that is committed under serious provocation. This, for example, would be a crime of passion murder. The punishment for third-degree murder is ten years minimum.


The Bottom Line

Homicide and murder are not the same thing. Both are defined as the killing of a human being, but murder charges also require that it be an intentional killing made with malice aforethought. Murder is just one type, the most serious type of homicide.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between homicide and negligent homicide?

Negligent homicide is one type of homicide. It is a criminal charge brought when a person, through criminal negligence, causes another person to die. Criminal negligence means having a reckless disregard for human life. In many states, criminally negligent homicide is classified as involuntary manslaughter. An example of negligent homicide would be if a drunk driver, who already has a DUI on their record, crashed into another car and killed the driver. While they did not intend the other person’s death, they acted with a reckless disregard for human life. Homicide is a broad category in criminal law that includes negligent homicide as well as other forms of homicide, such as intentional criminal homicide, aka murder.


What is the difference between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-Degree murders?

Most states have at least two degrees of murder. Some have three. First-degree murder is the most serious. It means murder with malicious intent and premeditation. It also includes felony murder, which is the killing of another person during the commission of a serious crime like rape or robbery. Second-degree murder is murder with malicious intent but without pre-planning, like pulling a gun on someone and shooting. Third-degree murder is often referred to as voluntary manslaughter and is intentional murder that happens in the heat of the moment based on provocation, such as a crime of passion.


What is culpable homicide?

Culpable homicide means a homicide for which the killer “deserves blame.” It is another word for criminal homicide, or the unlawful killing of another person. Murder is a culpable homicide. Manslaughter is another kind of culpable homicide. Culpable homicides are those in which a person can be arrested by law enforcement and criminally charged for the death of another human being.


What is an example of excusable homicide?

Excusable homicides are homicides that are legal or justifiable. Self-defense is the most commonly cited excusable homicide. If a person is defending themselves against an attacker, and the attacker dies, then they have committed the act of killing, but because they acted in self-defense, they are not guilty of a crime. However, most excusable homicides are legal defenses to a murder charge or a manslaughter charge and must be argued by a defense lawyer in a court of law.