Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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Homicide is the killing of one person by another. Every state has some type of homicide statute, but the concept behind the homicide charge evolved from common law principles. Under common law, homicide is classified in three ways including justifiable homicide, excusable homicide, and criminal homicide. How a defendant is charged with homicide will usually depend on the intent and actions of a defendant. If a defendant takes the life of another person, but did not intend the result, they would face a lower punishment or homicide charge. Conversely, a person that actually intended to harm someone without a good reason would face a higher homicide charge and punishment range.

What is Justifiable Homicide?

Justifiable homicide is homicide that takes place in the reasonable belief that a serious crime is being committed and in an attempt to prevent the crime. Essentially, it is a homicide with a good excuse. It may also be in self-defense, in defense of others, or an action taken in the line of duty, such as one by a police officer. Someone who hits another person over the head to prevent the assailant from raping a woman has committed homicide if the assailant dies, but the homicide would be justifiable if the amount of force used was necessary to prevent the crime of rape. A police officer who shoots and kills someone who he thinks is about to shoot a gun may also be justified. Some states have what is called a “castle doctrine” or “castle rule” which allows any person to use deadly force to protect their home from an intruder. This type of homicide is usually set out in a state’s penal code, rather than just in common law applications.

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When Homicide is Considered “Excusable”

Excusable homicide is homicide committed accidentally or with sufficient provocation while doing some lawful activity. For example, if someone is physically attacked in a parking garage and kills the attacker while defending himself, that would be excusable homicide. However, in order for the victims’ actions to be deemed excusable homicide, the attack victim could not have used a dangerous weapon or killed in a cruel or unusual way. Some states place requirements or limitations on excusable homicides. For example, some impose a duty to retreat or restrictions on the type of force used in order to perfect a claim of excusable homicide. If a defendant retreats, but reinitiates contact that leads to the homicide, then the homicide would not be excusable. For example, if the attacker in the garage ran away, but the defendant later saw the attacker and confronted him, then the defendant would not be excused from a resulting homicide because the defendant reopened the event.

What it Means to Commit Criminal Homicide

Criminal homicide is the unlawful killing of another. It is usually divided into categories based on the intent of the person. Some categories include murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. The more intentional the behavior, the higher the level of charge and punishment will be. Murder is considered a specific intent crime, which means that the person committed an act that was actually intended to kill or seriously harm another. For example, if a woman was mad at her ex-husband and drove a car directly at him and the collision resulted in his death, then the elements of criminal or unjustified homicide would be satisfied because she specifically intended to harm him. However, if the woman ran a stop sign because she was texting while driving, then she would not be guilty of criminal homicide because she lacked the specific intent to harm.

Although not guilty of murder, she could be found guilty of a lesser charge such as manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, which only require the showing of reckless or negligent conduct. Most state statutes set out what constitutes criminal homicide in general terms. Rarely do they contain “bright line” rules on what the prosecution must prove to meet the “intent” element of a homicide charge. Instead, most courts will look to the factors before, during, and after an offense to decipher what a defendant was thinking or actually intending. Continuing with the spouse example, the state could introduce evidence of recent arguments and threats to show that the wife actually intended to kill her ex-husband and thus was guilty of murder instead of just manslaughter.

Though not an outright defense, some states allow defendants to present evidence of “sudden passion.” Sudden passion occurs when the victim does something to provoke to the defendant, but the provocation does not amount to self-defense. For example, if a man catches his wife in bed with another man and ends up shooting the man in a rage of emotion and anger, then he could admit that he committed the act of murder, but was compelled by the sudden passion of the moment. If a defendant is successful in a sudden passion argument, they are not excused from the commission of the offense, but rather are punished at a lower level.