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Homicide: Bullets, Beers, & Butane

November 14, 2011

1. History, 2. Law

Homicide:  Bullets, Beers, & Butane

Doesn’t matter how you kill someone – shoot him in the head, get drunk and run him over, or burn down his house – it’s all homicide.  The difference is going to be between Murder and Manslaughter, and the degrees within each.  The difference is also going to be from maybe two years in prison to walking those final steps to the death-chamber gurney.

For background, read about Mens Rea here and Self Defense here.

Back in the good old days, if your actions resulted in the death of another (self defense aside), they hung you about 24 hours after the verdict came in.  No need for Death Row.  They gave you a meal, a priest, and a rope.  If you’re interested in this type of thing, when done properly, hanging cranks out about a 1,000 foot-pounds of torque.  Conveniently, you can divide 1,000 by your weight to get the needed amount of drop (be sure to soak the rope in brine then stretch it out by dropping sandbags).  The neck snaps at the axis, severing your spinal cord.  Blood pressure zeros out in – literally – a second.  While you’ll live for several minutes, you pretty much lights out.

Today in America, we think of capital punishment as only invoked in certain states and only for particularly heinous and premeditated murders.  We’ve narrowed the use quite a bit.  In the New York Colony as a result of the Duke of York’s Law of 1665, there were 11 crimes for which capital punishment was invoked including a child over the age of 16 smacking mom or dad.

Homicide is classified into one of two categories:  Murder or Manslaughter.  It’s not a perfect fit, but think of Murder as an intentional killing; Manslaughter, an unintentional killing.

As recently as our Colonial Era, Murder came in just one flavor and with one sentence:  Bible and a rope.  The Quakers were very prevalent in Pennsylvania around the time Benny Franklin was roaming the streets in what would probably be thought of as sexual voyeurism today, and they pushed through a law for Murder 2 (the first in America).  The sole purpose was to give a sentencing option to death.  The Quakers were big on rehabilitation.  They ran the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia.  They’d put prisoners into long-term solitary with only a Bible.  The suicide rate was atrocious.  But the Quakers meant well …

And you have to understand the reluctance to have lesser sentences than twisting in the wind.  Economies could not afford to house prisoners for decades.  It’s why the Brits sent them off to Australia.  So when a person was wrongfully killed in America, the options were not many until the 1800s.  Large prisons were built in the beginning of the century and towards the end the prison-industrial complex began to form and prosper.

So with long-term housing of inmates no longer an issue, the law felt freer to develop homicide statutes.  While every state controls the definition within its borders, there’s great similarity.  Pennsylvania has a representative structure:

  • Murder 1 – An “intentional killing”
  • Murder 2 – Felony-Murder Rule.  Read here.
  • Murder 3 – Any other Murder that didn’t fit into 1 or 2
  • Voluntary Manslaughter – “Sudden and intense passion” or inappropriate use of Self Defense
  • Involuntary Manslaughter – “Reckless or grossly negligent” act resulting in death

The importance in the Manslaughter distinctions is that Involuntary is a Misdemeanor 1 while Voluntary is a Felony 1.  Read about sentencing implications here.

When working with the short definitions above, think of Homicide as the unlawful killing of another human being … then layer in the mens rea.  Murder 1 brings that great phrase “malice aforethought.”  You can substitute the “deliberate and premeditated killing motivated by ill will.”  All other forms of Homicide merely pick away that phrase to achieve a lower charge.

What happens if you try to kill someone but don’t quite achieve death?  Besides facing Attempted Murder or Aggravated Assault, you still may cop a Murder charge if the person dies within a certain period of time after the event.  Historically, that period was a year and a day.  If the person lingered for a year and two days, you’re good.  Years ago, California extended the period to three years (not sure if it’s changed … that was rule when I went to law school there).  If the person dies within the statutory period, you’ve got the uphill climb of arguing Causation (read more here) – best of luck.

What if you were “insane” at the time?  That’s a tough road to achieve as a defense – both to prove it and to avoid responsibility.  Pennsylvania, for example, treats it with a “Guilty but Mentally Ill” verdict.  It deserves (and will get) it’s own post, but know this for now:  There’s a difference between “medical insanity” and “legal insanity.”  Legal insanity is its own private world.  Someone can be clinically insane yet still be sane legally.

One thing you can count on when your actions result in the death of another person – the government will fully investigate and prosecute.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde

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