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: Feb 26, 2020

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Murder is a homicide crime defined as the intentional killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is a state of mind, or intent, requirement that makes a homicide a murder.  It is this state of mind that differentiates murder from other types of criminal homicide like voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Malice Aforethought

Originally, malice aforethought under the law meant that the killing was intentional and premeditated. To constitute murder by being premeditated, a period of time actually had to elapse between the formulation of a plan to commit murder and its being carried out.

Today, most 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:

  1. an intent to kill;
  2. an intent to commit grievous bodily injury;
  3. a reckless indifference to the value of human life; and
  4. the intent to commit certain dangerous felonies, such as armed robbery. 

Malice aforethought may not be evidence in all situations of homicide, such as a homicide committed accidentally or in self defense.

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Murder vs. Manslaughter

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. 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 is graded as a felony and can be a capital crime that can be punishable in many states by the death penalty.  For questions about a specific charge of murder, consult a criminal defense attorney.

To read more on this topic go to What are the degrees of murder?