Homicide is defined as the taking of a person’s life, regardless of the intent or the circumstances surrounding the death. This means that a homicide is not necessarily a murder, but may be caused by an accident, an execution, or even abortion. Homicide itself is not necessarily a crime, though the circumstances that resulted in the individual’s death may raise it to a criminal level. To explore this concept, consider the following homicide definition.

Definition of Jury


  1. The killing of one person by another.
  2. The act of killing a human being.

Origin  1325-75  Middle English < Middle French homicīdium (a killing)


What is Homicide

Homicide occurs when an individual ends the life of another human being, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The term homicide simply refers to any act that caused or resulted in the death of a person. This is different from something the decedent did which resulted in his own death, such as falling off a tall building. However, if the decedent had been arguing with a co-worker on the roof, and the two began a shoving match, which caused him to fall off the tall building, the death would be considered a homicide. Still, it isn’t necessarily murder, as circumstances may dictate that it was an accident after all.

Laws governing homicide, including what acts are subject to criminal charges, and defining specific punishments for those acts, vary by jurisdiction. Criminal homicide generally involves a killing that was caused by either intent, or by negligence or recklessness.

Types of Homicide

Every day, people cause the deaths of other people, whether they do it accidentally, or by design. There are many types of homicide, not all of which are criminal in nature. While the exact classification or name of each type of homicide might vary according to each jurisdiction’s laws, they basically include criminal homicide, negligent homicide, justifiable homicide, and state-sanctioned homicide.

Criminal Homicide

Criminal homicide is not necessarily murder, as many accidental deaths fall into this category. In any criminal homicide case, the exact circumstances of the event, the mind-set, or mental state, of the perpetrator, and intent are considered in determining what criminal charges, if any, should be leveled. The most common forms of criminal homicide include murder and manslaughter.

  • Murder. Murder is the intentional killing of another person, or the accidental killing of another person while intentionally committing another crime. This is because the perpetrator should know that his illegal acts could cause the injury or death of another person, even if that was not his intent to begin with. Murder is broken down further into degrees, with first-degree murder being the most serious.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter refers to a situation in which the perpetrator intentionally killed the victim, though he had no prior thought or intent to kill. This might occur “in the heat of passion,” such as in an unexpected circumstance that causes the perpetrator to suddenly become mentally or emotionally distressed.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter. Involuntary Manslaughter unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in negligent or reckless behavior. For a charge of involuntary manslaughter to apply, the perpetrator must have had no intent to kill the victim. This might apply to a young man who crashes his car while street racing, killing a bystander.

Negligent Homicide

Negligent homicide is the lowest offense in the homicide category, and may be charged when an individual causes the death of another person through criminal negligence. There is no intent to kill, or premeditation involved, however, the individual must have knowledge of the risk of great harm or death to occur from his actions or failure to act.

For example:

Stella and Glenn are out back target shooting when Glenn accidentally shoots Stella in the abdomen. Because Glenn is on probation, and not allowed to handle or own a firearm, he is reluctant to call 9-1-1, and simply carries Stella into the house and attempts to render first aid. Stella dies of internal bleeding. While the shooting of Stella was an accident, Glenn should have attempted to get help by calling the Paramedics. Because he failed to do what any reasonable person would have done in the same situation, Glenn has committed negligent homicide.

Justifiable Homicide

Justifiable homicide is the killing of another person without criminal intent or malice. This might occur when a person is defending himself, or defending others. Justifiable homicide also refers to situations in which a death is caused by a law enforcement officer or other official acting in the line of duty to prevent a serious crime, and to protect others. Justifiable homicide is not a criminal offence, though it must be shown that the individual had a reasonable fear that his life, or the life of another person, was in jeopardy, or that the other person was about to commit a serious crime that could have caused serious injury or the death of other another person.

Real Case of Justifiable Homicide

In 2010, Todd Edward Fryer, of Ocklawaha, Florida, died as a result of a gunshot wound. That day, Fryer’s mother had asked a friend to come to her home to help her deal with her troubled son. Fryer and his girlfriend showed up at the home and began arguing with the mother and her friend. The situation got out of control and the police were called. Fryer’s girlfriend was arrested on battery charges.

Fryer continued to cause problems with his mother, who called another friend, who came to her house with his 8-year old daughter in the car. As the friend, Raymond Emala, drove up to the home, Fryer approached his vehicle in an angry and aggressive manner. Emala, who had a physical disability and could not get defend himself out of the car, pulled a gun out of the center console, hoping to scare the angry Fryer away. Fryer, however, lunged for the gun, causing it to discharge into the windshield.

At that time, Fryer began punching Emala through the car window, and Emala shot him twice. Fryer later died from his wounds. The state attorney ruled this shooting a justifiable homicide, as Emala had a reasonable fear for his life, and for the life of his young daughter, who was in the car with him.

State-Sanctioned Homicide

State-sanctioned homicide refers to the killing of a person with the consent, or sanction, of the government. The most obvious example of state-sanctioned homicide is capital punishment, in which an individual who has been sentenced to the death penalty is killed by prison officials. State-sanctioned homicide also covers homicides committed in action during a war. The use of “deadly force” by law enforcement officials is technically covered under this type of homicide, though there are strict parameters for this act.

Although there is a great deal of contention over the issue of abortion, many consider this act to be a form of state-sanctioned homicide. Strictly speaking, because this involves the intentional killing of a human being, and is legal in the United States, it may be considered state-sanctioned.

Vehicular Homicide

The number of deaths caused by the operation of motor vehicles has risen to the point of gaining its own classification of homicide. Vehicular homicide refers to the killing of a person while negligently or recklessly operating a motor vehicle. Sometimes referred to as “vehicular manslaughter,” specific charges for vehicular homicide vary by jurisdiction. The victim of vehicular homicide may be any person, whether inside or outside the perpetrator’s car, such as a pedestrian or cyclist, a passenger in the vehicle, or another motorist.

All but three states, Alaska, Montana, and Arizona, have specific statues for vehicular homicide, which hold that a motor vehicle is a deadly weapon if used negligently. Even if the state in which the death occurred, the driver in such an incident may be charged with manslaughter or murder. In some states, if the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he may face charges that are more serious. In general, there are two degrees of vehicular homicide:

First-Degree Vehicular Homicide

This is a felony which results in 3 to 15 years in prison. Repeat or habitual offenders can serve longer sentences. A vehicular homicide meets the criteria for first degree if the driver: was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, was driving recklessly without regard for the safety of others, failed to stop, or fled from a law enforcement officer, or failed to stop after being involved in, or causing a collision.

  • Was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Was driving recklessly without regard for the safety of others
  • Failed to stop for, or fled from, a law enforcement officer
  • Failed to stop after being involved in, or causing, a collision

Second-Degree Vehicular Homicide

Second-degree homicide is a misdemeanor offense, and is usually defined simply as any type of homicide by vehicle that is not covered by first-degree vehicular homicide. The penalty for second-degree vehicular homicide might include up to one year in jail, a fine, and probation.

Real Case of Vehicular Homicide

Rebecca Gayheart, born in 1971 is an American actor. She appeared in commercials for Noxzema and on the soap opera, “Loving.” On June 13, 2001, Gayheart was driving down the road when she struck a 9-year old child as he crossed a Los Angeles street. The boy died the next day from his injuries. In November of that year, Gayheart plead guilty to second-degree vehicular manslaughter, and was given three years probation, 750 hours of community service, a $2,800 fine, and a one-year suspension of her driver’s license. Had Gayheart left the scene of the accident without stopping to check on the boy and report to police, this accident would have been considered first-degree vehicular homicide.

Punishment for Homicide

The punishment for homicide varies greatly, depending on the exact nature of the charges. While justifiable homicide, and state-sanctioned homicide are not subject to criminal charges, and therefore no punishment, first-degree criminal homicide, or vehicular homicide, may be subject to sentences as severe as life in prison, or the death penalty. The laws of each jurisdiction specify the range of punishments that may be ordered by the court in any homicide case.

Homicide Detectives

Homicide detectives are law enforcement officers tasked with investigating and solving homicide cases. Homicide detectives perform several duties, such as interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, questioning suspects, and following leads, all with the goal of catching and convicting killers. Homicide detectives work on the local, state, or federal level, and are often faced with confrontational situations, which means they must be skilled in firearm usage. Becoming a homicide detective can take years, as most detectives are promoted to the position after gaining experience in the field.

Homicide Statistics

In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a study, which focused primarily on intentional homicide, to illustrate the worldwide trends and developments concerning homicide. The organization gathered data from 207 countries and found that:

  • In 2012, more than 415,000 homicides took place globally, a decrease from previous years
  • Over 36% of those occurred in the America’s alone
  • Globally, 79% of all homicide victims are male
  • In America, 66% of homicides were perpetrated through the use of a firearm (compared to just 13% in Europe)
  • 17% occurred with the use of a knife (compared to 33% in Europe)
  • Fewer than 25% of homicides result in a suspect being convicted

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Decedent – A person who has died.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Malice – The intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.
  • Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Reckless Behavior – Rash, careless, or wanton conduct that ignores the possibility of dangerous consequences.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.