Murder is the crime of causing the death of another human being without lawful excuse, and with intent to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm.
A difficult issue in defining murder is what counts as causing death. It is difficult to give a precise definition of this, but some legal principles provide guidance. For example, many common law jurisdictions abide by the year and a day rule, which provides that one is to be held responsible for a person's death only if they die within a year and a day of the act. Thus, if you seriously injured someone, and they died from their injuries within a year and a day, you would be guilty of murder; but you would not be guilty if they died from their injuries after a year and a day had passed.
Not all cases of illegal killing constitute murder. For example, unintentionally caused deaths due to recklessness or negligence are treated in most countries as the lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. Similarly, intentional killings without premeditation are sometimes charged as voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. In addition, some illegal killings have legal defenses such as insanity or diminished capacity).
Some cases of premeditated, intentional killing have lawful excuse and thus are not legally murder. These include killing non-surrendered enemy combatants in time of war, killing a person who poses an immediate threat to the lives of oneself or others (i.e., in self-defense), executing a person in accordance with a sentence of death, and, in some countries, abortion under defined circumstances. Sometimes killings under extreme provocation or duress are legally excused as justifiable homicide.
Most countries allow conditions that "affect the balance of the mind" to be regarded as mitigating circumstances against murder. This means that a person may be found guilty of "manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility" rather than murder, if it can be proved that they were suffering from a condition that affected their judgement at the time. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and medication side-effects are examples of conditions that may be taken into account when assessing responsibility. A somewhat different defense is insanity, which is almost exclusively used in cases of psychosis such as that caused by schizophrenia. Also, some countries, such as Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom and Australia, allow post-partum depression, or 'baby-blues', as a defense against murder of a child by a mother, provided that a child is less than a year old. See also crime of passion.
About 850 murders per year (reported in 2000) are committed in the United Kingdom. This is low compared to the United States with 12,000. These are only raw numbers which do not take varying populations into account: a better perspective can be gained by comparing murders per year per hundred thousand population (1 in the UK, 4 in the USA, and 63 in Colombia - source).
In English law, homicide can divided into several offences, including:
- Murder - Killing of another person whilst having either the intention to kill (with "malice aforethought") or to cause grievous bodily harm.
- Manslaughter - Unintentional and unlawful killing of another person.
- Infanticide - Intentional killing of an infant under 1-year-old by a mother suffering from post-natal depression or other post-natal disturbance.
The difference between murder and manslaughter is based on intent. English Law also allows for the transfer of intent. For example, in the circumstances where a man fires a shotgun with the intent to kill person A, or at least maim them but the shot misses and kills an otherwise unconnected person B then the intent to kill transfers from person A to person B and a charge of murder would stand.
Most common law jurisdictions, such as British Commonwealth countries, do not allow for the defense of necessity. For example, it is murder to kill another human being for food, even if without doing so one would die of starvation. This originated in a case of four shipwrecked sailors cast adrift off the coast of South Africa in the 1880s; two of the sailors conspired to kill one of the other sailors (a sick cabin boy), and having killed him ate his flesh to survive: R v Dudley and Stevens (1884) 14 QBD 273.
Comparatively recent adaptions to the English law of murder include the abolition of the year and a day rule.
Canada has about 550 murders per year, a number that is fluctuating. This is equivalent to numbers in most of the western world, except the U.S. which has triple the number per capita. The main methods of murder in Canada are shootings (30%), stabbings (30%), and beatings (22%).
Canada has four types of crime that can be considered murder:
- first degree murder - the intentional killing of another person with premeditation, in the furtherance of another serious criminal offense (kidnapping, robbery, etc.), or the killing of a peace officer
- second degree murder - the intentional killing of another person without premeditation (ie killing in the heat of the moment)
- manslaughter - the killing of another person where there is no intent to kill
- infanticide - the killing of an infant by a mother while still recovering from the birth, and the mother's mind is "disturbed"
(there are exceptions to the above - certain types of murder are always first degree murder, such as the killing of a peace officer, and certain types of killings are murder regardless of intent, such as a death resulting from sexual assault)
The maximum penalties for murder are:
- first degree murder - mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years (can be paroled under the "faint hope clause" after 15 years imprisonment, but such a reduction is rarely given and is not available for multiple murders)
- second degree murder - mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 10-25 years (parole eligibility determined by the judge at sentencing) (exeption: if the person had committed another murder in their past, parole eligibility is 25 years)
- manslaughter - maximum life imprisonment
- infanticide - maximum 5 years imprisonment
- There is a clause where persons convicted of multiple murder, and deemed unable for rehabilitation, to be declared a 'dangerous offender' upon examination of doctors and psychiatrists (usually for sexually related murder). Persons declared as dangerous offenders have an undetermined prison sentance, although it usually means an increase of 10 years (possibly to 35 or more years).
For every murder in Canada there are about 1.5 attempted murders.
About one in three Canadian murders are committed by a family member. One in eight is gang related. About 80% of murderers in Canada are caught within a year.
(All statistics are from the 2001 census)
The United States
In the United States, murder, or "homicide", is normally a crime only under state law, and a murder suspect will be arrested and held by local officials and tried in a local court on behalf of the state. For murders that are federal crimes (e.g. a killing of a federal official or on federal property), the trial would occur in a federal court.
Traditionally, and still in some states, the following terminology is used:
- First-degree murder (or murder in the first degree, or colloquially, murder one) refers to
- premeditated murder, or murder which occurs after some degree of reflection by the murderer. This reflection can be years or less than a second.
- Second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter refers to
- murder done without thought in the heat of the moment, or in some states after "adequate provocation", or
- Third-degree murder, also known as manslaughter,
occurs without the specific intent to kill, but usually after an act of criminal negligence or some other act resulting in a person's death.
In some other states, the definitions have been adjusted to reflect factors like perceived need for greater deterrancy, rather than those usual distinctions. For instance, the murder of a police officer, or any murder committed while serving a life sentence, is in some states a first-degree murder regardless of further circumstances.
Felony murder statutes
Many jurisdictions in the United States have also adopted felony murder statutes, according to which anyone who commits a serious crime (a felony), during which a person dies, is guilty of murder. This applies even if one does not personally cause the person's death. For example, a driver for an armed robbery can be convicted of murder if one of the robbers killed someone in the process of the robbery, even though the driver was not present at and did not expect the killing. In a few cases, some robbers have been found guilty of felony murder for the deaths of their accomplices.
Capital murder is murder which is punishable by death. In 38 of the United States, and the federal government itself, there are laws allowing capital punishment for this crime. Depending on the state, a murder may qualify as "capital murder" if (a) the person murdered was of a special class, such as a police officer; (b) "special circumstances" occurred in the crime, such as multiple murder, the use of poison, or "lying in wait" in order to murder the victim. Capital murder is quite rare in the United States compared to other murder convictions, but it has generated tremendous public debate. See generally capital punishment and capital punishment in the United States.
In California, 187 is a well-known slang term for murder, and it often appears in music made in that state. The number refers to the relevant section of the California Penal Code.
In Germany the term Mord (murder) is officially used for the premeditated killing of another person:
- for pleasure, satisfaction of the sex drive, greed or other "low motives",
- insidiously (an unsuspecting victim) or cruelly,
- by means dangerous to the public (for example with a bomb),
- to cover up or facilitate another criminal offense .
A killing which is not a murder may be either Totschlag (manslaughter) or fahrlässige Tötung (negligent homicide). Also, if the death is not a forseeable consequence of an intended or not intended act of violence, it might be classified as Körperverletzung mit Todesfolge (injury resulting in death). The penalty for Mord is lifelong imprisonment (i.e. at least fifteen years), the penalty for Totschlag is five to fifteen years imprisonment.
By Dutch law, murder (moord) is punishable by a prison sentence of up to twenty years, which is the longest prison sentence the law allows. Under special circumstances, such as multiple murders or prior convictions, a life sentence may be imposed. In addition to a prison sentence, the judge may sentence the suspect to TBS , or "terbeschikkingstelling", meaning detention in a psychiatric institution. TBS is imposed for a number of years (most often in relation to the severity of the crime) and thereafter prolonged if deemed necessary by a committee of psychiatrists. This can be done indefinitely, and has therefore been criticised as being a life sentence in disguise.
In 2003, 202 murders were committed in the Netherlands.
Finnish law calls the crime of causing the death of another human being "manslaughter" (tappo). The minimum sentence is eight years of imprisonment. Attempt is punishable. The crime of murder (murha) is defined as a manslaughter:
- with a firm intent (i.e. it is planned), or
- done in an especially brutal or cruel way, or
- while endangering public safety severely, or
- of a government official keeping the law and order.
The only sentence for murder is life in prison. However, the president can and usually will give a pardon (when requested) some time after 12 years. Involuntary confinement to a psychiatric institution may also result. It ends when the psychiatrist decides so, or when a court decrees it no longer necessary in a periodical review.
There is also the crime of "death" (surma), which is a "manslaughter" under mitigating circumstances, with the punishment of four to ten years. Involuntary manslaughter (kuolemantuottamus) has a maximum punishment of two years of prisonment or fine (see day fine ).
Other uses of the word
The word "murder" is sometimes used colloquially to mean some forms of mistreatment, e.g. a bad singer "murdering" a song, or describing something difficult to handle as "absolute murder". Additionally, the term is used to refer to a group of crows, and sometimes during sports play an opponent may tell his rival "I'm gonna murder you!", "I'm gonna kill you!", "I'm murdering you!" or "I'm killing you!".
The Vikings and Murder
The Viking culture had no concept of murder. If you killed someone, then it was up to you to pay the family fair compensation (weregild) for the labor lost by the members death. If the perpetrator refused to pay wergild, it was up to the family of the slain to extract it from the perpetrator, or take his life (an eye for an eye).
The only other type of killing with consequences in Viking culture was 'Unjust Killing', i.e., while they were sleeping, or with thier back turned. While there were no more financial repercussions for this other than the normal rules of wergild, the killer in question suffered from a huge loss of trust.