Section 3.1: Criminal Homicide

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

When discussing criminal acts, homicide invariably emerges as one of the most grave and deeply consequential offenses. Broadly speaking, homicide refers to the act of one person causing the death of another. However, the legal landscape breaks down this general term into several categories, each carrying its own weight of legal implications, penalties, and societal views. In this overview, we will explore the variations of homicide as defined under both the common law and the Model Penal Code (MPC).

Homicide under Common Law

Historically, common law—a system of law based on judicial decisions rather than statutory laws—classified homicide into a few distinctive categories. Each category was shaped by the circumstances of the act, the intent of the perpetrator, and the consequences of the deed.

  • Murder: The unlawful killing of a human being with “malice aforethought.” This malice could be express (a clear intent to kill) or implied (conduct demonstrating a reckless disregard for human life). Murder was further divided into degrees, with first-degree murder often encompassing premeditated acts and second-degree murder covering other malicious killings.
  • Manslaughter: Unlike murder, manslaughter was defined as the unlawful killing of a human without malice aforethought. Manslaughter was further split into two:
    • Voluntary Manslaughter: Typically a killing done in the “heat of passion” or during a sudden quarrel. It’s a killing that would have been murder if not for the mitigating circumstances that riled up the emotions of the offender.
    • Involuntary Manslaughter: An unintentional killing resulting from recklessness or criminal negligence.
  • Justifiable Homicide: As the name suggests, this is a killing deemed legally justifiable and, hence, not criminal. Examples might include self-defense or the state-sanctioned execution of a criminal.

Homicide under the Model Penal Code

The Model Penal Code (MPC) was developed as an attempt to provide a standardized and coherent framework for penal laws in the U.S. In terms of defining homicide, the MPC presents a more refined and detailed classification than common law.

  • Murder (§210.2): Under the MPC, murder is defined as causing the death of another person purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. The code eliminates the distinction between first and second degree, focusing instead on the nature and intent of the act.
  • Manslaughter (§210.3): Manslaughter under the MPC can be:
    • Voluntary: Causing another’s death under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there is a reasonable explanation. It captures the “heat of passion” concept of common law.
    • Involuntary: Recklessly causing the death of another person.
  • Negligent Homicide (§210.4): A category unique to the MPC and not recognized under common law, it addresses killings that result from the defendant’s criminal negligence.
  • Felony Murder: While the MPC doesn’t have a separate felony murder section, it does provide that a killing that occurs during the commission of specific felonies can elevate a homicide to murder. This is somewhat in line with common law’s approach to felony murder, though with a narrower scope.
  • Justifiable Homicide (§3.04 & §3.09): The MPC provides defenses for the use of force in self-protection and the use of force by law enforcement. Killings in line with these provisions might be deemed justifiable.

In Conclusion

Understanding the classifications of homicide is pivotal in grasping the broader scope of criminal law. While common law offers foundational concepts, the Model Penal Code refines and expands on these with its detailed and nuanced approach. We’ve merely scratched the surface here, and in later Sections, we will delve deeper into each category, discussing its implications, defenses, and relevant case law. For now, we hope this overview provides clarity on the multifaceted nature of homicide in the legal realm.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/28/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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