A homicide is a killing by one person of another. “Justifiable” or “excusable” homicides would include those authorized by law or for which there was a defense to criminal liability (for example, self-defense). “Criminal” homicide would cover every other situation. Criminal homicides were traditionally sub-divided into three different offenses: murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.
Murder was defined at common law as the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought. Malice suggests ill will and “wickedness of heart.” Aforethought suggests premediation and deliberation.
“Malice aforethought” required that the defendant either: (1) intended to kill (express malice); (2) intended to inflict great bodily injury; (3) possessed reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life (that is, demonstrated an “abandoned and malignant heart”); or (4) intended to commit a felony – thus, the “felony-murder” rule as described in greater detail below.
Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing distinguishable from murder by the existence of adequate provocation. This, for example, is the husband returning home to find his wife in bed with his best friend who, in a moment of sudden and intense passion without any time to reflect, kills both of them. He is still guilty but to a lesser degree of culpability.
Involuntary manslaughter was generally defined as death caused by criminal negligence. That is, while the defendant did not actually intend to kill the victim, his failure to exercise the appropriate degree of care still renders him criminally liable, albeit to a lesser extent than for, example, deliberate and premeditated murder.
Modern statutes tend to differentiate among “degrees” of murder. Most states consider “deliberate and premeditated killings” as first degree murder, with every other form of criminal homicide second (or in some cases third) degree murder. For specific information on murder/manslaughter in the District of Columbia, please click here. For information on murder/manslaughter in Virginia, please click here.
Felony-murder is defined as the killing of another person during the commission of a dangerous felony, such as rape, arson, kidnapping or robbery. In order to secure a conviction under the felony-murder rule, the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant actually intended to kill the victim, only that the death was the foreseeable result of the commission of a dangerous felony. In a sense, the prosecution is able to “piggyback” on the “malice aforethought” demonstrated by the defendant in committing the dangerous felony to prove the malicious state of mind needed to secure a murder conviction.