To prove a case of murder or manslaughter, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant unlawfully killed another human being. The difference in manslaughter vs. murder is intent, which is the distinguishing characteristic of all homicides. The specifics will vary from state to state, but generally, to prove murder, the government must prove that the defendant acted with an intent to kill or to inflict serious bodily harm. Some states and the Model Penal Code also recognize “depraved heart murder,” in which the government can prove murder if it proves that the defendant acted “recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
Many jurisdictions divide murder into first-degree murder and second-degree murder. To prove first-degree murder, the government must prove that the defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation, also known as “malice aforethought.” Often the government will produce evidence of planning, motive, and a manner of killing that suggests a preconceived design. This evidence can consist of testimony that the defendant lay in wait for the victim or told someone that he planned to kill the victim.
Second-degree murder is all other unlawful killings of a human being in which the defendant acted with intent to kill, to inflict serious bodily harm, or (in some states) “recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” Even if the defendant did not actively desire to cause death or serious bodily harm, the government can meet its burden if it proves that death or seriously bodily injury was substantially likely to occur as a result of the defendant’s conduct.
Nearly all jurisdictions divide manslaughter into voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that occurred in the “heat of passion.” The offense often arises when the government attempts to prove second-degree murder. In some cases, the defendant may admit the elements of second-degree murder but assert that he or she acted “under the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause.” If the government cannot foreclose such a defense beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant will be found guilty of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing of another human being committed recklessly or negligently. Some states divide involuntary manslaughter into first-degree involuntary manslaughter, in which the defendant acted recklessly, and second-degree involuntary manslaughter, in which the defendant acted negligently.
To sum up, in any homicide case, the government must prove that the defendant unlawfully caused the death of another human being. The different types of homicides concern intent, as follows:
|Homicide Offense||Defendant’s Intent|
|First-Degree Murder:||Premeditation and Deliberation (“Malice Aforethought”)|
|Second-Degree Murder:||Intent to Kill, Intent to Inflict Serious Bodily Harm, or (in some states) Recklessness Under Circumstances Manifesting Extreme Indifference to the Value of Human Life|
|Voluntary Manslaughter:||“Heat of Passion”|