Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of

Early legal codes, including English common law, defined homicide as the killing of a human being and included suicide. As the American legal system evolved, suicide was excluded and homicide became "the killing of one person by another" (Allen and Simonsen 1998, p. 615).

National and international definitions of homicide vary from society to society. Because most societies consider homicide to be the killing of one human being by another human being, both suicide and the murder of infrahuman beings (beings "lower" than humans) are excluded from the definition. The differentiation between abortion and homicide has not always been so clear-cut. Some people consider a fetus to be a human being from the moment of conception, whereas others are more liberal in their beliefs. The debate over the line between human being and nonhuman being, with regard to abortion, is a continuous issue, but the U.S. Supreme Court's January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision eliminated the act, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy, from the definition of homicide. At the start of the twenty-first century, forty states and the District of Columbia prohibited (except in rare circumstances) abortions after the fetus becomes viable (i.e., capable of surviving outside the mother on its own)—generally after the twenty-seventh week of pregnancy. When the fetus becomes viable, it becomes a human being and, unless legally permitted, its termination falls within the realm of homicide. An ongoing legal issue is "partial birth" abortion in relation to the subject of homicide.

Homicide is generally divided into two categories: criminal (unjustifiable) and noncriminal (justifiable or excusable). Noncriminal homicide involves the taking of the life of another in a manner that would not invoke criminal sanctions. The police officer who kills in the line of duty, the public executioner who is paid for the action, and the private citizen who kills to protect his or her own life and/or the life or lives of others may be justified or excused for their behavior.

Criminal homicide is an act that is mala in se. This means that it is behavior that is morally wrong in itself and is objectively and inherently criminal regardless of where it occurs. The killing of a person by another in a nonlegal manner is a violation of "natural law," which Frank Schmalleger defined as "rules of conduct inherent in human nature and in the natural order which are thought to be knowable through intuition, inspiration, and the exercise of reason, without the need for reference to man-made laws" (Schmalleger 2001, p. 122). Homicide that is criminal is classified as a felony and is typically punishable by a year or more in a state or federal penal institution. In some circumstances, the death penalty may be administered.

Each state differs in the defining of criminal homicide. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports uses the categories of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter ("the willful ... killing of one person by another person") and manslaughter by negligence ("the killing of another person by gross negligence"). It classifies justifiable homicide separately and excludes traffic fatalities. It is most helpful to simply divide criminal homicide into murder (first degree and second degree) and manslaughter (negligent, or involuntary, and nonnegligent, or voluntary).

First-degree murder consists of both premeditation and malice aforethought. Perpetrators of such murders possess mens rea, or criminal intent. They possess an "evil mind" or "depraved heart." They are aware that they have no right to kill, but they intend to commit an act of murder anyway (malice aforethought), and they carefully plan the demise of their victim (premeditation). For example, Joe Jones is an heir to the fortune of his Uncle John. Finding himself in need of money, Jones, after careful contemplation, decides that he wants his uncle dead and carefully plans to kill him via poisoning. Jones does not have to be present at the time of his relative's death to be convicted for his action.

In second-degree murder there is malice aforethought without premeditation. In other words, the offender intends to kill the victim but does not plan the lethal act. Bill Smith buys a new car, drives it home, and parks it in his driveway. While Smith is in his home, a neighbor attempts to vandalize and destroy Smith's new automobile. In a fit of rage and the full intent to kill, Smith returns to the driveway and murders his neighbor.

An act of voluntary or nonnegligent manslaughter is committed when a person attempts to hurt, but not kill, another human being—but the victim dies in the process. In a fit of drunken rage, Ray Wrong decides to teach his wife a lesson by banging her head against a wall. At the completion of his act, she is dead.

Negligent or involuntary manslaughter is characterized by accidental death. Some states distinguish between vehicular and nonvehicular accidental death and others do not. Jane Fast, while traveling through a school zone at an excessive rate of speed, hits and kills a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Her behavior would be considered an act of vehicular homicide. Mark Carpenter, while working on the roof of a new home, drops his hammer, which hits the head of a coworker working below. When the coworker dies from a skull concussion, the act becomes one of accidental, but not vehicular, manslaughter.

A number of studies have shown that the majority of homicides occur between people who know each other. "Non-stranger" or "acquaintance" homicide may range from individuals who encounter one another on one occasion and the death comes later, to persons who have been married for many years. In 2001 Freda Adler, Gerhard O. W. Mueller, and William S. Laufer reported on one study that indicated that 44 percent of the victims were in an intimate relationship with their killer, 11 percent were the children of the perpetrator, and 26 percent were friends and acquaintances. Only 7.5 percent of the killings involved strangers.

In a 1958 study of homicide in Philadelphia, Marvin Wolfgang found that a large number of the victims had initiated their own death. Wolfgang coined the term "victim precipitated" homicide to refer to those instances in which the victims' actions resulted in their demise. In this form of murder, the deceased may have made a menacing gesture, was first to pull a weapon, or merely used words to elicit a deadly response from the killer.

A new term for an old form of murder is "hate" homicide. This form of killing involves taking the life of "victims who are targeted because they differ from the perpetrator with respect to such characteristics as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, or disability status" (Fox and Levin 2001, p. 128). Hate killers are usually members of extremist groups such as neo-Nazis, skin-heads, and the Ku Klux Klan. Victims are most often African Americans or homosexuals, and the killings usually occur in the southern and western parts of the country. In June 1998 James Byrd, an African-American, while hitchhiking on a Saturday night in Jasper, Texas, encountered three white men who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd was chained to the back of a truck and dragged more than two miles to his death. According to the perpetrators of the crime, they wanted to send a message to other African Americans in the area. On another occasion, in October 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, two men posing as homosexuals lured a gay college student from a gay bar. He was robbed, pistol-whipped, burned with cigarettes, tied to a fence in the desert, and left to die from exposure. He died five days later in a hospital.

On April 20, 1999, at 11:35 A.M., eighteen-yearold Eric Harris and seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold entered the cafeteria at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Heavily armed with semiautomatic weapons, the teenagers went on a killing rampage that resulted in the deaths of twelve students and one teacher. At the end of their carnage, the murderers killed themselves. The Columbine incident was not the first time a student entered a school and committed an act of homicide, but it was the one that shocked the public conscience and created a new term in the American vocabulary—"school homicide" or "school killing."

See also: Capital Punishment ; Death System ; Firearms ; Homicide, Epidemiology of


Adler, Freda, Gerhard O. W. Mueller, and William S. Laufer. Criminology, 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Albanese, Jay S. Criminal Justice: Brief Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Allen, Harry E., and Clifford E. Simonsen. Corrections in America: An Introduction, 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Barkan, Steven E. Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States: Uniform Crime Reports, 1998. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.

Fox, James Alan, and Jack Levin. The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Hoffman, Dennis E., and Vincent J. Webb. "Suicide As Murder at Common Law." Criminology 19 (1981):372–384.

Reid, Sue Titus. Crime and Criminology, 8th edition. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark, 1997.

Samaha, Joel. Criminal Justice, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Schmalleger, Frank. Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Internet Resources

Steel, Fiona. "Calm before the Storm: The Littleton School Massacre." In "The Crime Library" [web site]. Available from www.crimelab.com/serial4/littleton/index.htm .

Sutton, Kathy. "Abortion in the Third Trimester." In the iVillageHealth [web site]. Available from www.allhealth.com/conditions/ .


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