A murder is the unlawful killing of another human without justification or valid excuse, especially the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought. This state of mind may, depending upon the jurisdiction, distinguish murder from other forms of unlawful homicide, such as manslaughter. Manslaughter is a killing committed in the absence of malice, brought about by reasonable provocation, or diminished capacity. Involuntary manslaughter, where it is recognized, is a killing that lacks all but the most attenuated guilty intent (mens rea), recklessness.
Most societies consider murder to be a very serious crime, and thus believe that the person charged should receive harsh punishments for the purposes of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation. In most countries, a person convicted of murder generally faces a long-term prison sentence, possibly a life sentence where permitted.
In many common law jurisdictions, a person convicted of murder will receive a mandatory life sentence. In jurisdictions where capital punishment exists, the death penalty may be imposed for such an act; however, this practice is now less common.
The modern English word “murder” descends from the Proto-Indo-European “mrtró” which meant “to die”. The Middle Englishmordre is a noun from Anglo-Saxon morðor and Old French murdre. Middle English mordre is a verb from Anglo-Saxon myrdrian and the Middle English noun.
Degrees of Murder
Many jurisdictions divide murder by degrees. The distinction between first- and second-degree murder exists, for example, in Canadian murder law and third-degree murder is recognized in U.S. murder law and Peruvian murder law.
The most common division is between first- and second-degree murder. Generally, second-degree murder is common law murder, and first-degree is an aggravated form. The aggravating factors of first-degree murder depend on the jurisdiction, but may include a specific intent to kill, premeditation, or deliberation. In some, murder committed by acts such as strangulation, poisoning, or lying in wait are also treated as first-degree murder.
Some jurisdictions also distinguish premeditated murder. This is the crime of wrongfully and intentionally causing the death of another human being (also known as murder) after rationally considering the timing or method of doing so, in order to either increase the likelihood of success, or to evade detection or apprehension. State laws in the United States vary as to definitions of “premeditation.” In some states, premeditation may be construed as taking place mere seconds before the murder. Premeditated murder is one of the most serious forms of homicide, and is punished more severely than manslaughter or other types of murder, often with a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or in some countries, the death penalty. In the U.S, Federal law criminalizes premeditated murder, felony murder and second-degree murder at Title 18 United States Code Section 1111. In Canada, the Criminal Code classifies murder as either 1st- or 2nd-degree. The former type of murder is often called premeditated murder, although premeditation is not the only way murder can be classified as first-degree.
According to Blackstone, English common law identified murder as a public wrong. At common law, murder is considered to be malum in se, that is an act which is evil within itself. An act such as murder is wrong or evil by its very nature. And it is the very nature of the act which does not require any specific detailing or definition in the law to consider murder a crime.
Some jurisdictions still take a common law view of murder. In such jurisdictions, what is considered to be murder is defined by precedent case law or previous decisions of the courts of law. However, although the common law is by nature flexible and adaptable, in the interests both of certainty and of securing convictions, most common law jurisdictions have codified their criminal law and now have statutory definitions of murder.
All jurisdictions require that the victim be a natural person; that is, a human being who was still alive before being murdered. In other words, under the law one cannot murder a corpse, a corporation, a non-human animal, or any other non-human organism such as a plant or bacterium.
California‘s murder statute, Penal Code Section 187, was interpreted by the Supreme Court of California in 1994 as not requiring any proof of the viability of the fetus as a prerequisite to a murder conviction. This holding has two implications. The first is a defendant in California can be convicted of murder for killing a fetus which the mother herself could have terminated without committing a crime. The second, as stated by Justice Stanley Mosk in his dissent, is that because women carrying nonviable fetuses may not be visibly pregnant, it may be possible for a defendant to be convicted of intentionally murdering a person he did not know existed.
Mental disorder may apply to a wide range of disorders including psychosis caused by schizophrenia and dementia, and excuse the person from the need to undergo the stress of a trial as to liability. Usually, sociopathy and other personality disorders are not legally considered insanity, because of the belief they are the result of free will in many societies. In some jurisdictions, following the pre-trial hearing to determine the extent of the disorder, the defence of “not guilty by reason of insanity” may be used to get a not guilty verdict. This defence has two elements:
- That the defendant had a serious mental illness, disease, or defect.
- That the defendant’s mental condition, at the time of the killing, rendered the perpetrator unable to determine right from wrong, or that what he or she was doing was wrong.
Under New York law, for example:
§ 40.15 Mental disease or defect. In any prosecution for an offense, it is an affirmative defence that when the defendant engaged in the proscribed conduct, he lacked criminal responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect. Such lack of criminal responsibility means that at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either: 1. The nature and consequences of such conduct; or 2. That such conduct was wrong.— N.Y. Penal Law, § 40.15
Under the French Penal Code:
- A person is not criminally liable who, when the act was committed, was suffering from a psychological or neuropsychological disorder which destroyed his discernment or his ability to control his actions.
- A person who, at the time he acted, was suffering from a psychological or neuropsychological disorder which reduced his discernment or impeded his ability to control his actions, remains punishable; however, the court shall take this into account when it decides the penalty and determines its regime.
Those who successfully argue a defence based on a mental disorder are usually referred to mandatory clinical treatment until they are certified safe to be released back into the community, rather than prison.
Postpartum depression (also known as post-natal depression) is recognized in some countries as a mitigating factor in cases of infanticide. According to Dr. Susan Friedman, “Two dozen nations have infanticide laws that decrease the penalty for mothers who kill their children of up to one year of age. The United States does not have such a law, but mentally ill mothers may plead not guilty by reason of insanity.” In the law of the Republic of Ireland, infanticide was made a separate crime from murder in 1949, applicable for the mother of a baby under one year old where “the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child”. Since independence, death sentences for murder in such cases had always been commuted; the new act was intended “to eliminate all the terrible ritual of the black cap and the solemn words of the judge pronouncing sentence of death in those cases … where it is clear to the Court and to everybody, except perhaps the unfortunate accused, that the sentence will never be carried out.
For a killing to be considered murder in nine out of fifty states in the US, there normally needs to be an element of intent. A defendant may argue that he or she took precautions not to kill, that the death could not have been anticipated, or was unavoidable. As a general rule, manslaughter constitutes reckless killing, but manslaughter also includes criminally negligent (i.e. grossly negligent) homicide. Unintentional killing that results from an involuntary action generally cannot constitute murder. After examining the evidence, a judge or jury (depending on the jurisdiction) would determine whether the killing was voluntary or involuntary.
Murder with specified aggravating circumstances is often punished more harshly. Depending on the jurisdiction, such circumstances may include:
- Murder of a child
- Murder of a police officer, judge, firefighter or witness to a crime
- Murder of a pregnant woman
- Crime committed for pay or other reward, such as contract killing
- Exceptional brutality or cruelty
- Murder for a political cause
- Hate crimes, which occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group.
- Treachery (e.g. Heimtücke in German law)
In the United States and Canada, these murders are referred to as first-degree or aggravated murders. Murder, under English criminal law, always carries a mandatory life sentence, but is not classified into degrees. Penalties for murder committed under aggravating circumstances are often higher, under English law, than the 15-year minimum non-parole period that otherwise serves as a starting point for a murder committed by an adult.
An estimated 520,000 people were murdered in 2000 around the globe. Another study estimated the worldwide murder rate at 456,300 in 2010 with a 35% increase since 1990. Two-fifths of them were young people between the ages of 10 and 29 who were killed by other young people. Because murder is the least likely crime to go unreported, statistics of murder are seen as a bellwether of overall crime rates.
Murder rates vary greatly among countries and societies around the world. In the Western world, murder rates in most countries have declined significantly during the 20th century and are now between 1 and 4 cases per 100,000 people per year.
Murder rates by country
Murder rates in jurisdictions such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Germany are among the lowest in the world, around 0.3–1 cases per 100,000 people per year; the rate of the United States is among the highest of developed countries, around 4.5 in 2014, with rates in larger cities sometimes over 40 per 100,000. The top ten highest murder rates are in Honduras (91.6 per 100,000), El Salvador, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Belize, Jamaica, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Zambia. (UNODC, 2011 – full table here).
The following absolute murder counts per-country are not comparable because they are not adjusted by each country’s total population. Nonetheless, they are included here for reference, with 2010 used as the base year (they may or may not include justifiable homicide, depending on the jurisdiction). There were 52,260 murders in Brazil, consecutively elevating the record set in 2009. Over half a million people were shot to death in Brazil between 1979 and 2003. 33,335 murder cases were registered across India, about 19,000 murders committed in Russia, approximately 17,000 murders in Colombia (the murder rate was 38 per 100,000 people, in 2008 murders went down to 15,000), approximately 16,000 murders in South Africa, approximately 15,000 murders in the United States, approximately 26,000 murders in Mexico, approximately 13,000 murders in Venezuela, approximately 4,000 murders in El Salvador, approximately 1,400 murders in Jamaica, approximately 550 murders in Canada and approximately 470 murders in Trinidad and Tobago. Pakistan reported 12,580 murders.
In the United States, 666,160 people were killed between 1960 and 1996. Approximately 90% of murders in the US are committed by males. Between 1976 and 2005, 23.5% of all murder victims and 64.8% of victims murdered by intimate partners were female. For women in the US, homicide is the leading cause of death in the workplace.
In the US, murder is the leading cause of death for African American males aged 15 to 34. Between 1976 and 2008, African Americans were victims of 329,825 homicides. In 2006, Federal Bureau of Investigation‘s Supplementary Homicide Report indicated that nearly half of the 14,990 murder victims were Black (7421). In the year 2007 non-negligent homicides, there were 3,221 black victims and 3,587 white victims. While 2,905 of the black victims were killed by a black offender, 2,918 of the white victims were killed by white offenders. There were 566 white victims of black offenders and 245 black victims of white offenders. The “white” category in the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) includes non-black Hispanics. In London in 2006, 75% of the victims of gun crime and 79% of the suspects were “from the African/Caribbean community.” Murder demographics are affected by the improvement of trauma care, which has resulted in reduced lethality of violent assaults – thus the murder rate may not necessarily indicate the overall level of social violence.
According to scholar Pieter Spierenburg homicide rates per 100,000 in Europe have fallen over the centuries, from 35 per 100,000 in medieval times, to 20 in 1500 AD, 5 in 1700, to below two per 100,000 in 1900. See: Homicide
Use of the term
In many countries, in news reports, journalists are typically careful not to call a killing a murder until the perpatrator is convicted of such. After arrest, journalists write that the person was “arrested on suspicion of murder”. When a prosecutor files charges, the accused is referred to as an “accused murderer”.
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