Do "murder", "manslaughter" and "homicide" have different legal definitions? Or are they just terms referring to the same act used in different jurisdictions?

  • 5
    This question very much depends on which jurisdiction you're talking about. Though as a rule there is some difference between some of these, it really matters where you mean.
    – Roy
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


Murder is intentional and premeditated killing. Manslaughter is also criminal killing but is not murder, because it is not premeditated e.g. someone comes home and discovers the spouse in bed with someone else, and "kills." That's voluntary manslaughter. Homicide is killing, criminal or not, so "self defense" or accidental killing is homicide. All murder and manslaughter is homicide, but not all homicide is manslaughter or murder.

There's another category of involuntary manslaughter.

Example: You are driving in a residential neighborhood at a "safe" speed of 10 mph. A small child rushes under your car, you can't swerve, and kill the child. That's accidental killing, not "manslaughter."

Example: You are driving in the same neighborhood at 30 mph. That's well above the 15 mph considered "safe." If you hit a child, you will now be charged with criminal involuntary manslaughter, or homicide, because of your "reckless disregard" for safety.

Example: You are driving at 10 mph, but are DUI, which slows your reflexes. If you now hit a child while under the influence of alcohol, that's criminal involuntary manslaughter.

  • 3
    This is not true in any jurisdiction I'm aware of; manslaughter is generally defined as the unlawful killing of another (to quote federal law, "Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice"), and homicide is generally any time person A is responsible for the death of person B whether or not it's criminal (a killing in self-defense is homicide, even though it is not illegal).
    – cpast
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 19:01
  • 1
    @cpast: I was editing my answer when you commented and presumably downvoted. Is it ok now?
    – Libra
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 19:05
  • Pretty much (you might want to clarify that manslaughter is specifically criminal killing). Downvote removed.
    – cpast
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 19:18
  • The distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter is specific to some jurisdictions. England and Wales has no such distinction (I don't know about Scotland). Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 14:16
  • You can't be right about shooting-the-guy-in-bed-with-wife example... That's intentional killing, therefore murder. Manslaughter is violence that ends, unintentionally, in death. If you punch a guy (so intending to hurt him non-lethally) but he falls, hits his head and dies, that might be manslaughter. I don't see how using a deadly weapon can be anything other than murder. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 7:25

The answer is going to depend on what jurisdiction you're talking about. But I can give you some general principles that apply, in most cases, in the U.S. at least.

"Homicide" is a general term for the killing of one person by another. If someone died, and another person caused it, it's homicide.

"Murder" and "manslaughter" are specific crimes, usually now defined by state criminal statutes. The specifics are going to differ from state to state, but in general, murder is the more serious crime and carries a more serious punishment.

So if a person dies at another person's hand, it is a homicide, and it may also be murder or manslaughter.

The way the law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter usually has to do with the killer's mental state. For example, a state with three homicide offenses might break them down like this:

  • Murder: "I killed him because I wanted to steal his wallet."
  • Voluntary manslaughter: "I killed him because I just found out he was sleeping with my wife."
  • Involuntary manslaughter/negligent homicide: "I didn't mean to kill him, but I was drunk and didn't see the stop sign."

These homicide offenses will then be further subdivided into degrees based on aggravating or mitigating factors. For instance, in some states there is a very limited definition for first degree murder, which may be the only offense that allows the death penalty (example: murder of a police officer, murder while serving a life sentence).

  • So, it is possible for a homicide to be non-criminal? E.g. A police officer shoots at a man who is holding a knife and trying to attack. The man died. The police committed a legal homicide?
    – kevin
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 14:20
  • 1
    Yes, depending on how broad a definition you use for "homicide." Some people use the term only to refer to an act that fits under one of the "homicide" crimes, meaning if you have a defense (such as self-defense), it's not "homicide." Others use "homicide" as a general term for any killing, in which case it would be a homicide, but not a crime.
    – chapka
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 14:32
  • IANAL, but are you sure that the "I was drunk" is a good example? I was under the impression that some (many?) jurisdictions would consider it to be voluntary, since you did drink and drive willingly. If that's so, it would be better to replace with a less ambiguous example.
    – o0'.
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 8:10
  • Are you sure about spur-of-the-moment killing not being murder? If you catch someone in bed with your wife and shoot him, how is that not murder? It is intentional. Since you have to pick up the gun, it's not a reflex action, it's pre-meditated - at least by a few seconds. Or is there a time-limit on pre-meditation? Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 7:19

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