Homicide, Murder, and Manslaughter: What Do They Really Mean?

If you’re a fan of police procedurals like CSI or legal dramas like you’re probably familiar with hearing the terms homicide, murder, and manslaughter thrown about as investigators, prosecutors, criminal lawyers and detectives try to solve cases or defend the innocent. But what do these words actually mean, and what are their legal implications?

The taking of a human life is, alongside rape, considered to be one of the most serious crimes a person can commit. But as with everything else in life, things are rarely clear cut or morally unambiguous, which is one of the reasons legal systems recognize gradations of responsibility and intent.

This article will provide a gloss for the major categories of homicide, and discuss how these categories are applied to actual cases.


In law, homicide is a general term that covers a range of different crimes, all of which involve the direct or indirect taking of a life.

In much the same way that “theft” can mean anything from snatching a purse to stealing a car, homicide names a category of offenses which range in severity.


Murder is a homicide that was undertaken with intent: one person caused the death of another, knowing that that is what they were doing and meaning to do it.

Legally, we speak of two “degrees” of murder, first and second.

  • First Degree: First degree murders are planned in advance, or happen during a hijacking, sexual assault (or sexual assault with a weapon), aggravated assault, kidnapping, forcible confinement, hostage situation, terrorism attack, or act of intimidation. The one exception to this is the murder of a police officer or firefighter, which is automatically treated as a first-degree offence regardless of the circumstances.
  • Second Degree: If it cannot be proved that a murder was planned in advance, it is treated as second-degree murder.

One of the reasons it is so important for people accused of murder to have proper legal representation is that a criminal lawyer like Jeff Reisman Law understands how the legal framework applies to a particular case, and can help ensure their client is not charged with a crime they did not commit.

Even when an acquittal isn’t possible, good legal defense can mean the difference between being convicted of murder in the first or second degree and being convicted of manslaughter.


Manslaughter is murder without intent. As with murder, two types of manslaughter are recognized by law.

Unlawful Act Manslaughter occurs when a person commits an illegal and dangerous act and kills another person in the process, while Criminal Negligence Causing Death occurs when someone is guilty of negligent behavior that leads to the death of another (drunk driving leading to a fatal collision is one of the most common examples).  

While being charged with a crime like Criminal Negligence Causing Death is obviously less serious than being charged with First Degree Murder, all homicide charges require a careful defense from expert lawyers with a detailed knowledge of the law.

Any death is a tragedy, and it is only right that the court system treats cases involve homicide with the utmost rigor. But this is also why it is equally important that the person accused of such a crime be given a chance to clear their name with the help of a criminal lawyer.