Unintentional Killing: A Look at Negligent Homicide and Manslaughter

Unlawfully taking someone else’s life is a grave offense that can result in severe legal consequences. The justice system does not take the act of killing another human being lightly, and the punishment can vary based on the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death. Negligent homicide is one such circumstance that can result in a lesser sentence than intentional murder. In such cases, the offender may have acted recklessly or carelessly, leading to the death of another person. However, even though the offense may not have been premeditated, the law still views it as a serious crime and can impose severe penalties on the offender.

One of the most important qualifying factors is malicious intent. Was there intent behind the offender’s acts? Did they mean to take someone’s life before they did so? Then their actions may constitute as murder. But what if they did not mean to kill? What if it was an unintentional killing? What if they were driven to kill in the heat of the moment, but had never considered doing so beforehand?

In most states across the US, criminal homicide is defined in one of three major ways: murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide. While most people understand what it means to murder someone, there are subtle yet important differences between criminal negligence and manslaughter.

When Is a Death Legally Unintentional?

As with most aspects of the law, intent is a little more complicated than some might expect at first glance. The law is not so simple as to just distinguish between whether someone meant, or didn’t mean to kill another person. There are different levels of intent or lack thereof at play, including premeditation, whether there was a feeling of imminent danger, emotional rage or disturbance, and negligence.

Intentionally causing someone to die may result in a charge of capital murder, murder in the first degree, or murder in the second degree. Capital murder is the highest offense – it is reserved for cases wherein a person expressly and premeditatively plans and executes the killing of another person, and is sentenced to death as a result. Not all states levy the charge of capital murder; it is only a charge in states with the death penalty.

Murder in the first degree is the next-highest offense, or the highest offense in states without the death penalty. It is levied in cases where there was a premeditated intent to kill, i.e., planning.

In states with the felony murder rule, first degree murder may also be charged if someone died as a direct result of a different first degree felony, such as arson or robbery. If a man enters a bank with the intention of robbing it, and then shoots the teller for failing to comply, that may be first degree murder.

Second degree murder involves a killing without premeditation. In these cases, it must be established that the offender meant to kill the victim, but only in the moment. An example often used is the husband killing his wife’s lover in the moment the two are discovered. If he had waited and planned to kill the lover later, it would be first degree murder. But if he killed him in an outburst of rage, without a plan, it would be second degree murder.

The line between second degree murder and manslaughter, also known as third degree murder, is muddled. This is where things become confusing, and the details of the case become crucial. For example, if the husband did not know that his wife was cheating on him, and came home to find her in bed with someone else without ever having suspected it, then got into a physical altercation that ended the lover’s life, the circumstances of that altercation may mean manslaughter or second degree murder.

Fear for one’s life is another important factor. Second degree murder may become voluntary manslaughter if the lover and husband initiated a fight, and both escalated it to the point of trying to kill the other. If there is no clear aggressor or defender in the physical evidence, it may be harder to argue second degree murder.

But when there was absolutely no intent to kill before or during the killing, it must be established whether the victim’s death was the result of criminal negligence, or reckless behavior. In these cases, a person would be charged with either negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter.

The Differences Between Criminal Negligent Homicide and Recklessness

We have certain responsibilities to each other. Ignoring these responsibilities may count as negligent behavior, especially if they put others at risk. A simple example is drunk driving. The driver of a vehicle has a reasonable duty to the people around them, including their passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians.

Drinking alcohol inhibits their ability to drive and increases the risk of injury and death to everyone around them. Unintentionally causing the death of others while driving drunk may be classified as negligent homicide.

Reckless behavior is more difficult to define and pertains to involuntary manslaughter. One way legal experts have been able to differentiate the two is the absence of responsibility vs. the presence of a risky action.

An example with a firearm would look like this: legally carrying a weapon but failing to operate it safely – such as making sure the gun is set to safety before handling it – constitutes criminal negligence. If someone is hurt or killed because the gun was handled improperly, that is criminally negligent behavior.

However, intentionally firing a round into the air in an open and crowded space and somehow hitting and killing someone unintentionally is criminally reckless behavior, and would rather count as involuntary manslaughter.

Think of the difference between not doing something you were supposed to do, and doing something you weren’t.

Are These Crimes Equally Serious?

The end result of any homicide is the same: the death of another human being. However, we scale the offender’s punishment based not on the outcome, but on the circumstances of the event.

Someone taking out a gun and intentionally killing someone else after weeks of planning receives a harsher punishment than someone dying accidentally because a gun was loaded and handled recklessly when it should not have been.

Between these two charges of unintentional killing – involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide – manslaughter is sometimes considered the more serious offense.

However, that does not necessarily mean that one receives a worse punishment than the other. These charges set the limits for what kind of judgment the offender might receive.

In California, for example, someone charged with negligent homicide may receive up to four years in prison. The same is true for involuntary manslaughter. In Texas, however, negligent homicide nets you up to two years in prison, while manslaughter can result in up to 20 years of jail time. It should be said that Texas does not differentiate between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter as charges, so the penalty may depend on the circumstances of the case. If you or someone you know requires a wrongful death lawyer, visit Werner to learn more about your legal options and rights.

A Look at Negligent Homicide and Manslaughter - Werner Law Firm

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