Talk to a top lawyer for free

Murder vs. Manslaughter: What's the Difference?

Do you know the difference between murder vs. manslaughter? Find out more and learn why the difference is so important.

evident Editorial Team
November 17, 2023
crime scene, murder vs. manslaughter

Being charged with taking someone's life is an extremely serious matter.

The specific criminal charges that prosecutors bring can mean the difference between life and death for the accused. It's critically important for anyone facing homicide allegations to understand the legal difference between murder and manslaughter charges.

The primary difference lies in intent and premeditation.

Murder requires prosecutors to prove the defendant killed intentionally and with malice aforethought.

Manslaughter may involve an intentional killing, but in circumstances that negate malice aforethought.

The degree of criminal homicide offense significantly impacts the severity of sentencing, parole eligibility, and overall legal implications.

Key Takeaways

What is Murder?

ai generated, jail, prison

Murder is the intentional, premeditated, and unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.

This means the intent to kill, cause grave bodily harm, or commit an act imminently dangerous to others in a depraved, wanton disregard for human life.

There are several degrees of murder charges.

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murder is an intentional, premeditated and deliberate killing. This is the most serious charge, punishable by life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty.

Premeditation requires extensive planning, motive and intent to kill prior to the act.

For example, purchasing a weapon in advance and luring the victim to a prepared location shows premeditation and is likely to result in a first degree murder charge.

Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murder is an intentional killing without premeditation.

The intent to kill exists, but there is no evidence of extensive planning or premeditation. For example, a heated argument escalating until one person intentionally kills the other with a weapon grabbed in the moment.

Felony Murder

Felony murder occurs during the commission of a dangerous felony crime such as armed burglary, arson, rape, robbery, kidnapping, or aggravated assault.

A co-felon can be charged with murder if someone died during the felony crime. For example, if a bank robber's accomplice fatally shoots a security guard.

Capital Murder

prison, jail, dark

Capital murder involves special circumstances, such as killing a police officer, judge, firefighter, child, mass murder, or murder for hire.

Capital murder charges allow the death penalty in some states. For example, breaking into someone's home and killing them execution-style per a murder-for-hire plot.

To convict on any murder charge, prosecutors must establish all legal elements beyond a reasonable doubt. These elements include criminal act, criminal intent, causation and absence of legal justification or excuse.

What is Manslaughter?

So wha's the difference between murder and manslaughter?

Manslaughter is an unlawful killing that does not meet the elements required for murder charges.

There are two main types:

  • Voluntary manslaughter - When the defendant intentionally kills another person during a heated emotional state caused by adequate provocation. The intent to kill exists, but malice aforethought is negated.
  • Involuntary manslaughter - An unintentional killing that results from recklessness, criminal negligence or during the commission of a low-level misdemeanor crime.

Manslaughter differs from murder in that it doesn't involve malice aforethought, premeditation or the specific intent to kill. Punishments tend to be significantly less severe.

Manslaughter charges are warranted when mitigating factors or lack of intent reduce a killing down from murder.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a defendant intentionally kills another person without prior intent to kill.

There must have been adequate provocation that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed. The provocation makes the killer act rashly in the heat of passion without thinking or malice aforethought.

Common examples include:

  • Killing upon suddenly finding out about one's spouse's infidelity
  • Killing someone else during an extremely heated argument that gets out of control
  • A parent learning of their child's sexual abuse and then killing the abuser in a rage

The reasonable provocation reduces intent and malice.

Voluntary manslaughter applies when intent to kill arose quickly during the shocking act, rather than being premeditated and deliberate.

Involuntary Manslaughter

An unintentional killing that results from recklessness and criminal negligence is considered involuntary manslaughter. The key distinction from accidental deaths is the reckless disregard for human life.

There are several types of involuntary manslaughter charges:

  • Vehicular manslaughter - Causing death by drunk driving, extremely recklessly or dangerously
  • Reckless endangerment manslaughter - Directly endangering and causing death through reckless conduct like randomly firing a gun
  • Unlawful act manslaughter - Accidentally killing someone during a non-felony unlawful act such as minor assault or destruction of property

Punishments tend to be less severe since the killing was unintentional and without malice aforethought, usually 1-15 years in prison.

Murder, a more severe crime, often leads to decades or a life prison sentence.

Legal Implications and Sentencing

courtroom, benches, seats

The penalties for manslaughter versus murder in the first and second-degree are substantially different.

This chart summarizes the typical sentencing (though it may vary by state):

Charge Typical Sentence
First-Degree Murder Life without parole or death penalty
Second-Degree Murder 15+ years to life in prison
Voluntary Manslaughter 4-15 years in prison
Involuntary Manslaughter 1-15 years in prison

Parole Eligibility

Parole eligibility comes much sooner for manslaughter convictions compared to murder.

For example, voluntary manslaughter may allow parole in 4-6 years, whereas second-degree murder may require 15+ years served before parole.

Those facing criminal homicide charges should explore any viable defenses with their legal counsel, such as justifiable homicide, temporary insanity, or self-defense.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can best advise if such defenses apply given the particular circumstances.

Common Defenses Against Murder Charges

folder, briefcase, brown

There are several potential legal defenses that could lead to murder charges being reduced or dropped entirely:

  • Self-Defense - Killing was necessary to protect oneself from imminent grave bodily harm or death. Use of force must be proportional.
  • Insanity Defense - Defendant was unable to understand criminality of actions or could not control behavior. Requires a mental health evaluation.
  • Diminished Capacity - Mental defect or involuntary intoxication prevented defendant from forming intent to kill. Could negate premeditation.
  • Accident - Death was a true accident without criminal negligence. Could reduce charges to involuntary manslaughter.
  • Provocation - Reasonable provocation led to heat of passion killing. Could reduce charges to voluntary manslaughter.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can assess if any defenses may apply to potential murder charges during the investigation process, prior to charges being filed.

People Also Ask

What are the 4 types of manslaughter?

The four main types of manslaughter charges are voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, and unlawful act manslaughter.

Each involves unique circumstances that distinguish them from intentional murder.

What is the difference between 2nd degree murder and manslaughter?

Second degree murder requires proving intent to kill while manslaughter does not; manslaughter involves circumstances like provocation or recklessness that negate malice aforethought despite clear intent to kill.

What is 1st 2nd and 3rd degree manslaughter?

There are only two degrees of manslaughter charges - voluntary and involuntary manslaughter; the designations of first, second and third degree only apply to murder charges, not different levels of manslaughter.

What makes a killing manslaughter rather than murder?

A homicide being accidental, unintentional, or committed in the heat of passion upon adequate provocation makes it manslaughter rather than premeditated first or second degree murder which requires malice aforethought.


The distinction between homicide murder and manslaughter charges significantly impacts the sentencing, parole eligibility, and penalties faced when charged with homicide.  

Those charged with homicide must understand these nuances and retain experienced legal representation to avoid the severe penalties of murder convictions.

Consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately if facing any allegations involving loss of a person's life.