Making a killing

Storytellers (and their audiences) have been fascinated with the topic of homicide since before we started writing our stories down. Consider the Iliad, for instance, which is nearly 3000 years old. There’s a lot of death there, with the killings of Hector and Patroclus forming a central part of that tale. Even our legal concepts of homicide are old. Although specifics vary between jurisdictions (yadda yadda yadda), most US states base their homicide law heavily on English common law dating to the Norman Conquest.

All homicides involve the same action: one human being killing another. The parties do have to be human. No matter how intelligent or well-loved a non-human animal is, its killing cannot be a homicide. If you’re a spec fic author, you have some lovely opportunities to muse on the potential definitions of humanity. Sentient aliens? Artificial intelligence? The walking dead, undead, and reincarnated? Ooh, such possibilities!

What differentiates the different kinds of homicide is the defendant’s mental state and the surrounding circumstances. We can subdivide homicide into three categories, each of which is comprised of subclasses.

Murder is the most serious kind of homicide. It involves unlawful killings–usually intentional killings, although there are a few exceptions to that rule. State definitions differ, but generally first-degree murder involves killing someone intentionally with some degree of premeditation. It doesn’t require a lot of premeditation. In some cases, first degree murder convictions have stood when the killer formulated his intent to kill a very short time before following through. Typically, though, he’s been thinking about it for a while. First degree murder may also include felony murders, in which the offender committed a felony—an armed robbery, maybe—and didn’t plan for anyone to die, but someone did. There are some interesting twists to the felony murder rule; I’ll cover them in a later post. In the US, first-degree murder is almost the only crime that carries a potential death sentence (the other being treason).

Second-degree murder is also intentional, but without preplanning. Cain and Abel get into a bar fight, Cain says “I’m gonna kill you!” and then he pulls out his gun and shoots Abel dead. That’s second degree. Second-degree murder also often includes “depraved heart” killings in which the killer didn’t necessarily want anyone to die, but acted with such extreme indifference to human life that a death was likely. The classic example is shooting a gun at a passenger train.

Manslaughter is a killing involving less culpability on the part of the offender. For voluntary manslaughter, the killer has acted “in the heat of passion.” That is, something provoked him so severely that he lost control of himself and killed. The classic example here is when the offender comes home and finds their spouse in bed with someone else. Involuntary manslaughter means the offender was so careless as to cause someone’s death. Vehicular homicides such as those caused by excessive speeding or drunk driving are often charged as involuntary manslaughter, although in some states they’ll be vehicular manslaughter instead.

Finally, there’s non-criminal homicide. This occurs when the killing is permitted by law (e.g., euthanasia and execution) or is justified under the circumstances, such as self-defense or some killings by police officers. As the name suggests, those who commit non-criminal homicides won’t face punishment. But somebody’s still dead.

Homicide law is complex, full of all kinds of little details that could make lovely plot points. For example, what do we mean by “killing”? Does brain-dead count? How direct does the relationship need to be between the offender’s acts and the victim’s death? What if the death occurs years after the attack, as in this case? How much premeditation is enough? When has someone acted with a depraved heart? (That was the issue in the recent trial of a Baltimore policeman for Freddy Gray’s death.) When is an act careless enough to justify criminal liability?

Even if we set aside the inherent drama of human life and death, it’s no wonder homicides have fascinated us for so long!

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