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The most significant difference between murder and manslaughter is the mindset of the criminal at the time the killing takes place. When a human being dies as a result of someone else's actions, it is generally considered a homicide. If the individual who committed the killing is convicted of murder, it means that he or she is believed to have acted in a premeditated manner, with a cold heart and cruel intentions. In contrast, a manslaughter conviction basically means that even though one person ends the life of another, the offense was not pre-planned. Most frequently, crimes of this nature are precipitated by either a highly emotional situation intensified by provocation, or sometimes, as a result of gross negligence.
Murder and manslaughter both result in the unnatural death of a human being. The penalty for murder is much more serious. In most jurisdictions, the degree and category of the crime the person is charged with often depends on the perpetrator's intentions at the time the act was committed. Cold-hearted killing, or murder, usually incorporates a diabolical plan to end the life of another. Life in prison, or in some cases, the death penalty may be imposed.
Depending on the circumstances, a manslaughter conviction often results in prison time, followed by parole. The length of incarceration may be reduced if there are mitigating factors. In some cases, such as involuntary manslaughter, sentences can be much more lenient than in cases where the killing is a voluntary act. Murder and manslaughter charges result in different sentences, or punishments.
In cases where a death is not maliciously planned, or when it occurs in conjunction with another unlawful act, the lesser charge of manslaughter often applies. For example, if a drunk driver collides with a pedestrian and kills him or her, the driver was committing an initial crime of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. If a homicide occurs as a result, the driver is also likely to be charged with manslaughter because he did not intend to commit murder even though his behavior resulted in death. He is still held responsible for his actions and is punished accordingly.
Gross negligence without the existence of another crime may also constitute a manslaughter charge. An example might include a physician or health care provider who accidentally kills a patient during the course of treatment, but does so in a reckless or careless manner. Negligent behavior that leads to the death of another may be treated as a criminal offense in most instances. A similar offense may apply in cases of physical violence.
In circumstances where a physical fight occurs, and subsequently ends in death, there are several factors that determine how a defendant is prosecuted. The charges of murder and manslaughter are ultimately defined by the intent of the accused. Also, it may be taken into consideration whether or not a reasonable person may have responded in a similar manner given the same set of circumstances.