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Justifiable homicide refers to murder that is justified, or understandable and reasonable, and thus not punishable by law. Although murder is illegal within every country in the world, most countries also recognize that certain circumstances make murder an appropriate course of action and, as a result, not punishable under murder laws. In the United States, justifiable homicide is the term used to excuse murders that the law permits or excuses.
There are numerous examples of homicides considered justifiable and excused in their entirety under United States law. Soldiers in a time of war who are following the orders of a commander, for example, are not guilty of murder because killings they commit are completely justified as benefiting the greater good. Likewise, police officers who shoot an armed criminal to save a life are not guilty of murder because the homicide is necessary.
Justifiable homicide can also be raised as a defense by private citizens in certain criminal actions. For example, if a homeowner shoots a trespasser who has come into his home, this may be considered justifiable. If the homeowner can prove the elements of self defense, he thus will not be punished under the murder statutes of the United States.
In order for self defense to be considered justifiable homicide, the person who committed the murder has the burden of proving that murder was the only course of action that he could take. This means he must prove that the person he killed was going to commit armed robbery, murder, rape or another serious crime that would cause immediate danger. If there was another course of action — such as leaving the area — that could have resolved the problem without murder, self defense is not appropriate.
Provided the individual proves that there was no other course of action he could take, self defense is usually a full defense for murder. This means a person who proves all the elements of self defense required within the jurisdiction will not face criminal penalties. He will be found innocent of the murder and all charges will be dropped.
Certain types of justifiable homicide rules do not result in a complete absolution from punishment, but instead result in a mere lessening of the punishment. For example, some states recognize that crimes of passion may occur and provide less stringent punishments for such crimes. These laws in the United States find their roots in English common law rules that held it was permissible for a man to kill his wife's lover if he found them in the act of adultery. To receive a lesser sentence for a crime of passion, the murderer must prove all elements required within the jurisdiction, and the situation must be one that the courts recognize as inciting uncontrollable anger.