There’s an important distinction to keep in mind when you’re writing about a person’s death and choosing between murder or homicide.
We get into grammatical debates in the newsroom from time to time, and one of this week’s focused on the right term about a killing: should be called murder or homicide?
A police spokesman referred to the killing as a homicide within the context of listing how many there had been in that department’s jurisdiction that year. What he meant to say was murder, not homicide.
The two are not the same thing.
In fact, one of the things we learned in journalism class many, many moons ago was this:
All murders are homicides but not all homicides are murders.
Let me explain that.
A homicide refers to the killing of a human being. But people can be killed in different scenarios. It’s important to note that not all homicides are criminal. Some, in fact, may be legally justified.
Murder, on the other hand, is the intentional killing of a human being, with or without premeditation. Some states have degrees of murder: First-degree murder is the most criminal kind of homicide: it involves the intentional and premeditated killing of a human being. Some states automatically classify certain types of murders as “first-degree.” Some states also require “malice aforethought,” meaning “an evil disposition or purpose and an indifference to human life.”
Second-degree murder, on the other hand, involves the intention to kill but a lack of a premeditated plan to do so. Second-degree murders are sometimes called “heat of passion” murders.
Some states do not set degrees of murder at all. But murder — first or second degree or no degree at all — are homicides.
There are also killings that end up being labeled “manslaughter,” either voluntary or involuntary. Generally speaking, “voluntary manslaughter” may be the charge against someone who kills another in a disturbed state of mind but without premeditation; voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder are very similar. “Involuntary manslaughter” may be the charge filed against someone who performs an act of recklessness that “shows indifference to the lives and safety of others” or an act of negligence “that could reasonably be foreseen to result in death,” even when no death was intended at all. Wikipedia gives the example of one pushing another in anger and the person who is pushed falls and suffers a fatal blow to the head.
Some homicides are legally “justified.” An example is a death that results from one acting in self-defense against an attacker. Different states have different laws that define what might be allowable with respect to lethal force in a self-defense situation. Other examples of “justified” killings might be wartime killings or instances in which a law enforecement officer kills someone who is threatening the officer, other officers, or civilians.
Some killings are completely accidental. The killing itself, of course, is a homicide, but if it’s deemed accidental, it’s definitely not a murder.
The police spokesman, incidentally, seemed to believe that “homicide” and “murder” are interchangeable. Some people do believe this, unfortunately. But from a legal standpoint, and for the sake of being accurate, the words should never be considered interchangeable.
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.