If you or a loved one have been arrested in connection with another person’s death in Canada, you may wonder what the differences are between being charged with homicide, murder, and manslaughter. The terms may seem confusing, but they all refer to different types of crimes.
Homicide is the killing of one person by another. This is a broad term that includes both legal and illegal killings. For example, a soldier may kill another soldier in battle, but that is not a crime. There are various situations in which the killing of another person does not constitute a crime. The distinction between an illegal and legal killing is, therefore, the difference between murder and manslaughter.
Murder is a homicide that is the illegal killing of another person. Under the criminal code, murder is defined as one person killing another person with malice aforethought. Malice is defined as the knowledge and intention or desire to do evil. Malice aforethought is found when one person kills another person with the intention to do so.
First Degree Murder vs. Second Degree Murder
Even within the universe of those who kill with malice aforethought, the law regards some as more dangerous and morally blameworthy than others. First degree murder applies to those defendants. Killings involving malice that don’t amount to first degree murder tend to constitute second degree murder.
The rules vary somewhat from province to province as to what circumstances make an intentional killing first degree murder, but the following circumstances commonly do so:
The killing is deliberate and premeditated. In other words, the killer has formed the intent to kill and has had time, however brief, to reflect on the matter. An obvious example of premeditation is a wife going to the store, buying a lethal dose of rat poison, and putting it in her husband’s tea.
The killing occurs during the course of a dangerous felony. This crime is often known as “felony murder.” Someone can be guilty of murder if a death occurs during the course of a dangerous felony, even if the person is not the killer. In most provinces, the death must be a foreseeable result of the initial felony. For example, assume that Aaron commits arson by setting a house on fire. Chris, a firefighter, dies while attempting to douse the burning building. Here, Aaron would be guilty of felony murder because a death occurred in the course of a dangerous felony, and the death was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions. (Aaron might also be guilty of old-fashioned murder on the theory that he acted with malice aforethought.)
What is Manslaughter?
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of one human being by another without malice aforethought.
There are several types of manslaughter, including:
- Involuntary manslaughter. This often refers to unintentional homicide from criminally negligent or reckless conduct. It can also refer to an unintentional killing through commission of a crime other than a felony. In November 2012, a Las Vegas jury found a man guilty of involuntary manslaughter for a single punch to a fellow casino patron who died when he hit his head as he fell.
- Voluntary manslaughter. When a murder charge is reduced to manslaughter due to mitigating circumstances, such as heat of passion or diminished capacity, the reduced charge is sometimes voluntary manslaughter.
- Vehicular manslaughter. When this crime is charged, the driver had no intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm but operated a vehicle with criminal negligence (also called “gross negligence”) or during the commission of a misdemeanor and caused another’s death. This charge can include accidental killing by a drunk driver. If the accidental death occurred during the commission of a felony, the charge may be raised to felony murder (discussed above).
- Intoxication no defense to manslaughter. Where an intoxicated person acts with criminal negligence and causes the death of another, the intoxicated person may be charged with manslaughter. The fact that the person was too intoxicated to intend to kill or even seriously injure another is no defense, because manslaughter does not require intent to kill.