At common law, murder was the killing of another human being with malice aforethought.
At common law, murder was defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. This meant that the act was done intentionally, willfully, and with premeditation. Malice aforethought was considered to be a necessary element for a homicide to be considered murder. The concept of malice aforethought included not only the intent to kill but also the intent to cause serious bodily harm or depraved indifference to human life.
MPC Murder Definition
However, the modern Model Penal Code has slightly altered this definition. According to the Code, murder is the killing of another human being done purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. The Code eliminated the concept of malice aforethought and instead focused on the modern culpable mental states of the actor.
Under the Model Penal Code, the mental states of purposely, knowingly, or recklessly are defined as follows:
- Purposely: the actor has the conscious objective to cause the result or engage in the conduct that constitutes the offense.
- Knowingly: the actor is aware that their conduct will likely cause the result or is aware of the circumstances surrounding the conduct that make it an offense.
- Recklessly: the actor disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that their conduct will cause the result or is aware of the risk and chooses to engage in the conduct anyway.
Degrees of Murder
The Code also includes a distinction between first-degree and second-degree murder. First-degree murder is defined as a purposely or knowingly committed killing with premeditation and deliberation, while second-degree murder is defined as a recklessly committed killing or a killing committed with extreme indifference to human life.
In addition, many jurisdictions have also created different degrees of murder, depending on the circumstances surrounding the killing. For example, some states have a third-degree murder charge, which may encompass homicides that are not premeditated, intentional, or committed with extreme indifference to human life but are still considered to be unlawful and unjustified.
Overall, while the common law definition of murder focused on the concept of malice aforethought, the modern Model Penal Code definition focuses on the actor’s mental state at the time of the killing. This has allowed for a more nuanced understanding of homicide and has resulted in different degrees of murder charges that reflect the severity of the offense.
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- Tomkovicz, J. J. (1994). The endurance of the felony-murder rule: A study of the forces that shape our criminal law. Wash. & Lee L. Rev., 51, 1429.
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Last Modified: 06/27/2023