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The Important Difference Between Murder & Homicide

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 your case.

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 in prison.
  • 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 no parole.
  • 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.