What is murder?

Murder is defined as the intentional killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought. Murder differs from voluntary manslaughter in that the latter's perpetrator had no prior intent to kill the victim and probably acted in the heat of passion. Murder is graded as a felony and can be a capital crime punishable in many states by the death penalty. Read our legal guide for more information about murder charges and murder defenses.

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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: Jul 15, 2021

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The definition of murder in the U.S. is a homicide crime involving the intentional killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is a state of mind, or intent, a requirement that makes a homicide a murder. A conviction of capital murder can carry a possibility of punishment of life imprisonment

It is this state of mind that differentiates felony murder from other types of criminal homicide like voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

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What is malice aforethought?

Originally, malice aforethought under the law meant that the killing was intentional and was a premeditated murder. To constitute felony murder as premeditated, a period of time actually had to elapse between the formulation of a plan to commit murder and it being carried out. The period of time for premeditation can be as brief as “the blink of an eye”.

Today, most U.S. courts have broadened the meaning of malice aforethought to include all situations where the perpetrator can be said to have acted with malice. There are four different states of mind that the courts consider to be evidence of an actor’s malice.

They include:

  • an intent to cause death;
  • an intent to commit grievous bodily injury;
  • reckless indifference to the value of human life; and
  • the intent to commit certain dangerous felonies, such as armed robbery.

Malice aforethought may not be evidence in all situations of homicide, such as accidental killings or killing in self-defense.

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What is the difference between murder vs. manslaughter?

The crime of murder differs from voluntary manslaughter in that the latter’s perpetrator had no prior intent to kill the victim, and probably acted in the heat of passion. Murder differs from involuntary manslaughter in that the latter’s perpetrator had no intent to kill at all, but acted in a reckless or unreasonable manner. A person convicted of manslaughter had no intention of causing a death. For example, an offender who runs a red light while driving and hits a pedestrian who later dies has acted in a reckless manner and is guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Murder describes intentional killings of people and is graded as a felony. Capital murder can carry a punishment for murder in many U.S. states of the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison. For questions about a charge of murder or a specific degree of murder, consult a criminal defense attorney.

What are the degrees of murder?

What are the types of criminal homicides? First- and second-degree murder are the most serious.

First-degree murder is the most serious type of intentional murder with the most serious sentences for murder which can include life sentences or even execution as possible consequences. The requirements for a homicide verdict to be classified as a first-degree murder typically include deliberate planning or premeditation. The circumstances around the murder will also be taken into consideration.

If multiple people or a vulnerable person were killed, it may be considered first-degree murder.

Second-degree murder is more typically used when someone killed with malice but not with premeditation. These are often “crimes of passion.”

There are other types of murder, such as third-degree murder. Third-degree murders happen when murder was not the intent while committing a dangerous act with a disregard for life. Crimes of unintentional killing of people may be considered manslaughter. Authorities do not consider self-defense killings crimes if they were truly done with provocation you were defending yourself from people who were attacking you.

Learn more about the degrees of murder here.

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