What is Criminal Homicide?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 December 2019
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Criminal homicide is the intentional, reckless, or negligent death of a victim at the hands of a perpetrator. A criminal homicide charge suggests that the nature of the crime is not justifiable, excusable, or wholly accidental. Depending on the circumstances and regional laws, criminal homicide may be charged as murder, manslaughter, or unlawful negligence.

Many legal systems have provisions for deaths that may occur that are not criminal in nature. One example would be a fatality in a traffic accident where no laws were broken and no negligence can be shown to have occurred. A person who kills another on the reasonable and justifiable belief that his or her life was in danger maybe considered to be acting in self-defense, thus negating a criminal charge. If an operating tool bizarrely malfunctions, killing a patient on an operating table, the attending physician may not be criminally charged with homicide unless some degree of negligence can be shown. Legal systems tend to provide these safeguards as a measure of reasonable response to the fact that accidental death, or justifiable homicide can occur.

Criminal homicide charges, on the other hand, are generally the result of deaths that could have been avoided. These killings typically occur because of an unlawful act of the perpetrator that is either intended to kill or harm, or is simply negligent. How the crime is charged will depend entirely on the circumstances of the death.


If a criminal homicide is charged as murder, it is usually because there is an element of intent, or malice aforethought, involved. This means that the perpetrator intended to kill or cause harm, or knew that his or her actions had a high probability of killing or harming a victim. A homicide may also be charged with murder if the perpetrator showed indifference for the danger of others, such as by firing a gun in a crowed room, even if the shooter did not intend to harm or kill anyone. In some jurisdictions, murder may also be allowed as a charge if the death occurred during the perpetration of a felony or attempted escape from law enforcement.

Manslaughter is often broken down into two categories of criminal homicide: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is often closely related to murder, but suggests that the perpetrator had no intent to kill, or may have been provoked into the homicide. Often, the state of mind of the accused party is vital to determining whether a criminal homicide is considered to be manslaughter or murder; a person who can be reasonably believed to have acted in the immediate heat of passion or in the mistaken but sincere belief in a threat of harm may be charged with manslaughter, rather than murder. Involuntary manslaughter generally relates to situations where the perpetrator showed negligence but no intent to harm or kill, such as by driving recklessly.

Punishment for criminal homicide depends on the applicable laws and the circumstances of the crime. In some regions, homicide may invoke the possibility of capital punishment, which may be reserved for extremely brutal or multiple murder cases. More often, murder and voluntary manslaughter are punishable with jail time. Voluntary manslaughter may result in jail time, fines, probation, and court ordered treatment if the crime was related to anger issues or substance abuse.


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