Negligent homicide refers to the killing of another person through reckless or negligent behavior. It differs from other forms of homicide due to the implied lack of malice and intent. Common examples of negligent homicide involve motor vehicle accidents that result in fatalities. To explore this concept, consider the following negligent homicide definition.
Definition or Negligent Homicide
- The killing of another person through gross negligence or without malice.
What is Negligent Homicide?
Homicide is used to denote the killing of one person by another. The negligent homicide meaning is the killing of another person by acting negligently or without malice. A subset of homicide, various states define this crime differently.
Some statutes do not include the term negligent homicide while others use it interchangeably with involuntary manslaughter. In other states, laws define both crimes and make a clear distinction between the two.
Criminally Negligent Homicide
As a very general category, criminal homicide covers a broad range of situations and criminal offenses. In some circumstances, homicide is not considered a crime, including in cases where a person kills in self-defense. Homicide involving negligence, however, constitutes a criminal act, often called criminally negligent homicide.
Typically, criminal homicide is broken down into two additional categories: murder and manslaughter. The defendant’s mental state and intentions at the time of the crime set the three apart.
Negligent homicide occurs when a defendant kills another person while engaging in conduct that they should have known carried risks. Ponder the following negligent homicide examples:
- While caught up in the excitement of an outdoor holiday celebration, a guest shoots his firearm into the air. The bullet strikes another guest, killing them instantly.
- A woman drives through a stop sign and strikes another vehicle, killing the driver. An investigation reveals that she was texting while driving and failed to observe the stop sign.
In proving negligent homicide, the prosecution would establish that the defendants knew the risks associated with their actions.
Murder is the unjustified killing of another person with malice aforethought. This means that the defendant took someone’s life with intention or premeditation. Many state laws include two categories of murder: first-degree and second-degree. In many states,
- First-degree murders involve premeditation or the use of explosives. It is also first-degree if a defendant killed a person knowing they were a police officer, correctional officer, or judge.
- Second-degree murders lack premeditation. In other words, the defendant did not plan on committing the act of murder. Conduct that demonstrates an extreme indifference to human life and results in death also classifies as second-degree murder.
Manslaughter is the act of killing another person without malice aforethought. Since it does not involve intent or premeditation, the punishment is less severe than that of murder. Manslaughter has two primary forms: voluntary and involuntary.
- Voluntary manslaughter involves killing in the heat of passion. One example is when a spouse has an immediate violent reaction upon finding their husband or wife committing adultery.
- Involuntary manslaughter is the least serious classification of homicide. Often used interchangeably with homicide of a negligent nature, it occurs when a person unintentionally kills another through a careless or reckless act.
In some states, killing another person due to the illegal operation of a motor vehicle falls under negligent homicide statutes. Others classify it as a separate offense, often called vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter.
Illegal operation of the motor vehicle includes gross negligence, reckless driving, speeding, or driving while intoxicated. If another person dies as a result of these behaviors, the driver may be charged with vehicular homicide.
Proving Negligent Homicide
In the United States legal system, the fair and impartial delivery of justice depends on the presumption of innocence. This means that a person accused of a crime does not have to prove his innocence. Rather, the prosecution has the burden of proving negligent homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.
This requires evidence so strong that it eliminates any doubts a reasonable person might have about the defendant’s guilt. During a trial, the prosecution uses witnesses and evidence to prove the elements of negligent homicide.
Elements of Negligent Homicide
In order to establish criminal liability, the prosecution must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. These elements vary depending on the criminal act and state statutes. In all criminally negligent homicide examples, the prosecution must show that the crime included the following elements:
- The defendant was aware of the risks associated with the actions that led to the other person’s death.
- The defendant acted, or failed to act appropriately in a dangerous situation, and that action or inaction caused the victim’s death.
- There is a direct link between the defendant’s conduct and the victim’s death.
If the prosecution fails to prove all elements of negligent homicide beyond a reasonable doubt, the case ends in acquittal.
Defenses Against a Negligent Homicide Charge
To convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must prove the person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To prevent this, the person charged has the right to establish defenses against a negligent homicide charge. Generally, the defendant will claim they did not commit the crime. This may involve presenting an alibi or challenging the authenticity of the prosecution’s evidence.
In some negligent homicide examples, the defendant admits to the crime but offers an excuse or justification for his actions. If successful, the defense reduces the defendant’s liability. Some common defenses against a negligent homicide charge include:
- The defendant’s actions did not deviate from a reasonable standard of care. This means that a reasonable person in the same situation would have acted in the same manner.
- The defendant acted in self-defense. In most states, this involves proving that the defendant reasonably believed there was a threat of imminent death or serious harm.
- The defendant lacks the capability to know right from wrong or understand his actions due to diminished mental capacity. This is known as the insanity defense.
- There was an absence of negligence or recklessness. This challenges the claim that the defendant acted irresponsibly or was aware of the risks associated with his conduct.
Punishment for Negligent Homicide
The punishment for negligent homicide depends on state sentencing guidelines, which vary greatly. Some states classify the crime as a misdemeanor, except in cases where the death was the result of an intoxicated driver. The following is an example of negligent homicide sentencing guidelines in Alabama:
Negligent homicide is a misdemeanor that carries a prison term of up to 7 years. If an intoxicated driver causes the death, the charge upgrades to a felony. A felony conviction carries a 1- to 15-year prison sentence.
Overall, the punishment for negligent homicide in most states ranges from probation to 8 years’ incarceration. The court can also order the defendant to pay fines and/or restitution. Along with criminal charges, an offender can face a wrongful death lawsuit, even if the prosecution fails at proving negligent homicide. This type of civil lawsuit allows family members to seek damages from the person responsible for their loved one’s death.
Negligent Homicide Example Involving a School Fight
On April 24, 2016, Tray Cannon and Alcee Franklin-Johnson (pseudonyms) got into a physical altercation in the school bathroom. The incident between the two 16-year old girls lasted less than a minute. However, two hours later, Alcee died due to a rare heart condition she was not aware of.
Police charged Tracy with criminally negligent homicide. After a five-day bench trial, the jury found her guilty of the charge. The judge delivered his decision pinning Alcee’s death on Tracy because she knew the risks associated with the attack. The court also ruled that the evidence established her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Tracy appealed and the Delaware Supreme Court agreed to review the case. While a delinquency proceeding is not essentially a criminal prosecution, the state’s burden is the same as that of an adult criminal case. Both types of proceedings rely on the same legal principles. In order for the court to find a person guilty of criminally negligent homicide, the state has the burden of proving that the defendant (1) acted with criminal negligence, and (2) caused the death of a person.
To establish criminal negligence, the state must prove the defendant’s indifference to the risk of death. Her conduct must also grossly deviate from what a reasonable person would do if put in that situation. To prove causation, the state had to show that the Alcee’s death would not have occurred had the attack not happened.
The Supreme Court took Aclee’s autopsy into consideration. It stated that the cause of death was “sudden cardiac death due to a large atrial septal defect and pulmonary hypertension.” It also showed that Alcee did not suffer any serious physical injuries from the attack.
§ 263 of the Delaware Criminal Code:
“The element of reckless or negligent causation is not established if the actual result is outside the risk of which the defendant is aware or, in the case of negligence, of which the defendant should be aware unless:
(1) The actual result differs from the probable result only in the respect that a different person or different property is injured or affected or that the probable injury or harm would have been more serious or more extensive than that caused; or
(2) The actual result involves the same kind of injury or harm as the probable result and is not too remote or accidental in its occurrence to have a bearing on the actor’s liability or on the gravity of the offense.”
In considering the defendant’s defenses against a negligent homicide charge, the court ruled that a sufficient relationship must also exist between the risk created by the defendant and the cause of death. In this case, the death was a result of a rare cardiac condition.
The court reversed the lower court’s ruling. It found that Tracy’s attack on Alcee did not rise to the level of criminal negligence. The court concluded that Tracy’s conduct was too accidental in its occurrence to amount to negligent homicide.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – The standard of proof required in a criminal trial: that no other logical explanation exists, given the facts presented, that the accused committed the crime.
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- 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.
- Evidence – Information presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts, including testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.
- Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
- Forethought – The thinking of something beforehand, the planning out in advance.
- 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.
- Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
- Prosecution – The lawyer or lawyers who charge and try a case against a person who is accused of committing a crime.
- Statute – A written law passed by a legislature on the state or federal level.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.
- Wrongful Death – The death of an individual caused by the willful or negligent actions of another person.