The killing of one human being by another human being.
Although the term homicide is sometimes used synonymously with murder, homicide is broader in scope than murder. Murder is a form of criminal homicide; other forms of homicide might not constitute criminal acts.
These homicides are regarded as justified or excusable. For example, individuals may, in a necessary act of Self-Defense, kill a person who threatens them with death or serious injury, or they may be commanded or authorized by law to kill a person who is a member of an enemy force or who has committed a serious crime. Typically, the circumstances surrounding a killing determine whether it is criminal. The intent of the killer usually determines whether a criminal homicide is classified as murder or Manslaughter and at what degree.
English courts developed the body of Common Law on which U.S. jurisdictions initially relied in developing their homicide statutes. Early English common law divided homicide into two broad categories: felonious and non-felonious. Historically, the deliberate and premeditated killing of a person by another person was a felonious homicide and was classified as murder. Non-felonious homicide included justifiable homicide and excusable homicide. Although justifiable homicide was considered a crime, the offender often received a pardon. Excusable homicide was not considered a crime.
Under the early common law, murder was a felony that was punishable by death. It was defined as the unlawful killing of a person with "malice aforethought," which was generally defined as a premeditated intent to kill. As U.S. courts and jurisdictions adopted the English common law and modified the various circumstances that constituted criminal homicide, various degrees of criminal homicide developed. Modern statutes generally divide criminal homicide into two broad categories: murder and manslaughter. Murder is usually further divided into the first degree, which typically involves a premeditated intent to kill, and the second degree, which typically does not involve a premeditated intent to kill. Manslaughter typically involves an unintentional killing that resulted from a person's criminal negligence or reckless disregard for human life.
All homicides require the killing of a living person. In most states, the killing of a viable fetus is generally not considered a homicide unless the fetus is first born alive. In some states, however, this distinction is disregarded and the killing of an unborn viable fetus is classified as homicide. In other states, statutes separately classify the killing of a fetus as the crime of feticide.
Generally, the law requires that the death of the person occur within a year and a day of the fatal injury. This requirement initially reflected a difficulty in determining whether an initial injury led to a person's death, or whether other events or circumstances intervened to cause the person's death. As Forensic Science has developed and the difficulty in determining cause of death has diminished, many states have modified or abrogated the year-and-a-day rule.
Justifiable or Excusable Homicide
A homicide may be justifiable or excusable by the surrounding circumstances. In such cases, the homicide will not be considered a criminal act. A justifiable homicide is a homicide that is commanded or authorized by law. For instance, soldiers in a time of war may be commanded to kill enemy soldiers. Generally, such killings are considered justifiable homicide unless other circumstances suggest that they were not necessary or that they were not within the scope of the soldiers' duty. In addition, a public official is justified in carrying out a death sentence because the execution is commanded by state or federal law.
A person is authorized to kill another person in self-defense or in the defense of others, but only if the person reasonably believes that the killing is absolutely necessary in order to prevent serious harm or death to himself or herself or to others. If the threatened harm can be avoided with reasonable safety, some states require the person to retreat before using Deadly Force. Most states do not require retreat if the individual is attacked or threatened in his or her home, place of employment, or place of business. In addition, some states do not require a person to retreat unless that person in some way provoked the threat of harm. Finally, police officers may use deadly force to stop or apprehend a fleeing felon, but only if the suspect is armed or has committed a crime that involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious injury or death. A police officer may not use deadly force to apprehend or stop an individual who has committed, or is committing, a misdemeanor offense. Only certain felonies are considered in determining whether deadly force may be used to apprehend or stop a suspect. For instance, a police officer may not use deadly force to prevent the commission of Larceny unless other circumstances threaten him or other persons with imminent serious injury or death.
Excusable homicide is sometimes distinguished from justifiable homicide on the basis that it involves some fault on the part of the person who ultimately uses deadly force. For instance, if a person provokes a fight and subsequently withdraws from it but, out of necessity and in self-defense, ultimately kills the other person, the homicide is sometimes classified as excusable, rather than justifiable. Generally, however, the distinction between justifiable homicide and excusable homicide has largely disappeared, and only the term justifiable homicide is widely used.
Other legal defenses to a charge of criminal homicide include insanity, necessity, accident, and intoxication. Some of these defenses may provide an absolute defense to a charge of criminal homicide; some will not. For instance, a successful defense of voluntary intoxication generally will allow an individual to avoid prosecution for a premeditated murder, but typically it will not allow an individual to escape liability for any lesser charges, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. As with any defense to a criminal charge, the accused's mental state will be a critical determinant of whether he or she had the requisite intent or mental capacity to commit a criminal homicide.
Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide
The killing of oneself is a suicide, not a homicide. If a person kills another person in order to end the other person's pain or suffering, the killing is considered a homicide. It does not matter if the other person is about to die or is terminally ill just prior to being killed; the law generally views such a killing as criminal. Thus, a "mercy killing," or act of Euthanasia, is generally considered a criminal homicide.
As medical technology advances and the medical profession is able to prolong life for many terminally ill patients, a person's right to die by committing suicide with the help of a physician or others has become a hotly contested issue. In the 1990s, the issue of physician-assisted suicide came to the forefront of U.S. law. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician, helped approximately 130 patients to commit suicide. Michigan authorities prosecuted Kevorkian for murder on a number of occasions, but because aiding, assisting, or causing a suicide is generally considered to be separate from homicide, Kevorkian initially avoided conviction. Finally, in 1999, he was convicted of second-degree murder following the nationally televised broadcast of a videotape showing Kevorkian injecting a lethal drug into a patient. In 2000, the new england journal of medicine revealed a study showing that 75 percent of the 69 Kevorkian-assisted deaths that were investigated were of victims who were not suffering from a potentially fatal disease; five had no discernible disease at all. Instead, it appeared that many of the suicides were the result of depression or psychiatric disorder.
As of early 2003, only one state (Oregon) permitted physician-assisted suicide. However, at that time, similar laws had been introduced in Arizona, Hawaii, and Vermont. U.S. Attorney General john ashcroft sought a Declaratory Judgment that prescribing federally controlled drugs for the purpose of assisting suicide was not legitimate medical practice. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was expected to render a decision in the matter later that year.