If you’ve ever seen a crime drama on television or watched nearly
any newscast, you’ve probably heard the terms “murder”
and “homicide” thrown around. In many cases, people mistakenly
believe that the two are synonymous, or have the same definition and thus
can be used interchangeably. However, what they don’t realize is
that these two terms have drastically different legal definitions. In
fact, it’s actually not surprising to hear television shows and
newscasts mistakenly use the wrong term!
On this blog, we’ll look closer at the legal definition of these
two terms and explain why it’s important to know.
Let’s start with homicide. The simplest definition for homicide under
Pennsylvania law is any act of which the consequence is causing someone
else to lose their life. It’s important to note that this includes
all actions, whether they are intentional, premeditated, accidental, reckless,
or even in self-defense. Every one of these cases is considered some form
of homicide, but exactly which type of homicide could drastically change
There’s an important distinction here:
homicide can be justifiable. The law does say you can defend yourself with lethal force if you can reasonably
believe that someone is about to use dangerous or potentially lethal force
to you, or to someone else. This is known as “self-defense.”
Let’s look at an example: a criminal is brandishing a firearm in
the air and threatening to kill police officers and innocent bystanders
unless their demands are met. Despite negotiations, the criminal quickly
turns and points the firearm at officers. An officer quickly responds
and discharges their weapon, killing the criminal.
In this situation, the officer in question could argue that they were acting
in self-defense. The criminal was a) making violent threats, b) brandishing
a firearm, and c) pointing it directly at the officers after declaring
their intent. In this situation, a reasonable person could assume that
they were at risk of being shot, and therefore the officer pre-emptively
acted in self-defense. Of course, this is a highly simplified example,
and most real-world situations are far more complicated.
Murder is not so much the opposite of homicide, but rather is a
type of homicide. To be more specific, murder is a type of homicide where the
act is intentional and willful. To put it simple: the difference between
murder and homicide can be boiled down to one simple sentence:
murder is unjustifiable homicide. Whereas justifiable homicide is not a criminal offense, murder is a particularly
heinous felony that carries some of the heaviest penalties in Pennsylvania’s
entire criminal code.
Under Pennsylvania’s criminal statutes, there are actually several
different types of non-justifiable homicide charges.
- Involuntary manslaughter is when reckless or otherwise careless actions
cause the death of another. The most common examples of this is reckless
driving causing a car accident which results in the death of another.
This carries a potential sentence between 2.5 and 5 years in prison.
- Voluntary manslaughter is when someone intentionally causes another person
to lose their life, but the act is not pre-meditated or otherwise planned,
but rather is the result of a sudden emotional explosion or “heat
of passion.” This type of homicide carries between 10 and 20 years
- Third degree murder is a sort of “catch-all” offense for murder
cases that don’t fall into either the first or second degree murder
classification. For example, if someone physically assaults another person
with the intent of injuring them, only for them to die as a result of
those injuries, they could be charged with third degree murder due to
lack of intent. This carries anywhere from 10 to 20 years in prison.
- Second degree murder is criminal homicide committed while undertaking a
different felony. It’s important to note that this can be charged
to both the perpetrator and any accomplices in committing the initial
felony as well. Second degree murder is punishable by life in prison with
- First degree murder is the most serious crime in Pennsylvania state law.
This is reserved for pre-meditated, deliberate acts. This could include
poisoning someone else, lying in wait for a victim, or intentionally planning
a scheme in which the target will ultimately be killed. This also includes
hiring a hitman to commit the offense. This offense is punishable by death
or life in prison with no chance of parole.
If you’re facing charges of a violent crime, including murder charges,
call a Scranton criminal defense lawyer for help immediately.
Reach out to the Law Offices of William D. Thompson at (570) 666-1068 and request a consultation today.