What is the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

The main difference between murder and manslaughter is that the murder has malice aforethought while the manslaughter does not have malice aforethought.

Homicide is the legal term for any killing of a human being by another human being. Therefore, homicide also refers to killing by accident or in self-defense. Murder and manslaughter are criminal homicides. However, the distinction between these two crimes lies in the state of mind or the intention of the killer/perpetrator in committing the crime.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Malice Aforethought
     – Definition, Features
2. What is Murder 
     – Definition, Characteristics, Types
3. What is Manslaughter
     – Definition, Characteristics, Types
4. Similarity Between Murder and Manslaughter
     – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Murder, Criminology, Law, Manslaughter, Homicide

Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter - Comparison Summary

What is Malice Aforethought

Malice aforethought under the criminal law means ‘A predetermination to commit an act without legal justification or excuse. A malicious design to injure.’

To commit a first-degree crime, a clear malicious intention (where the perpetrator is unconcerned about the life of the other) becomes an integral part. Moreover, malice aforethought of the perpetrator highlights the killing was intentional and premeditated (where a certain period of time is consumed to plan and enact the murder)

Under the criminal law, there are four different states of mind that the courts consider to be evidence of an actor’s malice. They are:

  1. An intention to kill
  2. An intent to commit grievous bodily injury
  3. A reckless indifference to the value of human life
  4. The intent to commit certain dangerous felonies, such as armed robbery (under felony murder rule)

Moreover, it is this intention of the perpetrator to kill or harm the other, which distinguishes murder from unlawful killing.

What is Murder

Murder is basically a criminal homicide that essentially has malice aforethought. Therefore, the murderer has undergone all the stages of malice aforethought: clear intention to kill or cause reckless bodily harm and enacting the crime as a result of the indifferent attitude to the value of human life. In brief, murder is the unjustified killing of another. As a result, this crime is considered a felony.

In fact, to qualify a certain killing as a murder, it should be unlawful, meaning not legally accepted and committed with malicious aforethought. Usually, to perform a certain murder, there has to be proper planning of the crime.

At present, two types of murders are distinguished, namely, first-degree murder and second-degree murder and open murder according to their statute. Therefore, it is by considering these statutes one can mark the distinctions between the first and second-degree murder.

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murder applies to homicide killings that are more dangerous and more aggravated in addition to having a malice aforethought. Moreover, they are morally blameworthy than others. This is also known as ‘capital murder’.

Second-Degree Murder

Killings involving malice that don’t amount to first-degree murder tend to fall under second-degree murder. This murder is also referred to as the common law murder (a public wrong). However, the criteria to specify a murder as a capital murder or not may vary according to the law of the specific state. Examples of both these murder types may include rape, assault, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, etc.

Nevertheless, the murder of any degree is always characterized by an intentional killing that has proper premeditation. As a consequence, it is graded as a felony and can be a capital crime punishable in many states by the death penalty.

What is Manslaughter

In contrast to murder, manslaughter falls into the category of homicide crimes that do not have any malice aforethought. By definition, manslaughter means ‘the unlawful killing of a person without malice or prior thought”. Therefore, manslaughter is most often happens as a result of ‘the heat of passion’. The perpetrator does not have any intention to take the life of another at all, unlike during a murder. Even though this is considered a serious crime, the punishment for this is less severe than punishment to murder. However, the punishment may vary according to the different jurisdictions of the varied states.

There are basically three categories of manslaughter namely, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter happens when a person voluntarily kills another even though he clearly didn’t have any prior plan or intention to kill the victim. Often it is this manslaughter type that takes place as a result of the ‘heat of the passion’. (For example, an angry husband killing his wife after catching her red-handed with another man).

Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is when the perpetrator’s unintentional actions or his or her reckless behaviour (usually while committing a minor crime) caused the death of the victim. Usually the perpetrator’s negligence, reckless behaviour, etc. are the most common causes for these types of crimes. (A person was trying to pickpocket another, and after being caught, he violently hits the victim with a nearby object in order to escape, but eventually, the victim died out of internal haemorrhage, a doctor engaging in illegal abortion and the patient dies due to anaesthesia overdose)

Vehicular Manslaughter

Vehicular manslaughter is usually referred to as killing another while illegally, negligently, or recklessly while operating a motor vehicle. Therefore, this type of crime is primarily associated with deaths caused by reckless driving. (Hitting another vehicle and killing the passenger since the perpetrator was texting while driving and lost the control of the vehicle)

Evidently, there is no prior planning or premeditation which defines the malice aforethought in all these types of manslaughter. The punishments for these types of manslaughter differ according to the severity of the crimes. Nevertheless, the gravity of the overall punishment given in manslaughter is comparatively not less severe than the punishment given in murder cases.

Similarity Between Murder and Manslaughter

  • Both these crimes fall under criminal homicides.

Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter


The murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another. Thus, there is essentially the malice aforethought whereas manslaughter is unlawful killing of another essentially without malice aforethought.

Murder differs from voluntary manslaughter in that the latter’s perpetrator had no prior intent to kill the victim, and probably acted in the heat of passion. 


Murder typically consists of first-degree murder and second-degree murder while manslaughter consists of three types such as voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter.


The overall punishment for murder is the death penalty or imprisonment for a longer period without the possibility of parole. However; the punishments may also vary according to the type of murder and the jurisdiction of the murderer. (For example in the US, it is either death penalty or imprisonment of not less than 7 1/2 years and even more than 17 years.)

The usual punishment for manslaughter carries no minimum sentence, except when it is committed with a firearm, in which case the minimum sentence is four years in prison. Sentences vary according to the state and gravity of the crime.


Homicide is the killing of another person either intentionally, involuntarily or even as a result of self-defence. Both murder and manslaughter are considered criminal homicides. However, the main difference between murder and manslaughter is that the murder has malice aforethought while the manslaughter does not have malice aforethought.


1.  West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc
2. “Manslaughter – Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes.” Legal Dictionary, 17 Aug. 2015, Available here.
3. “Murder – Definition, Examples, Processes.” Legal Dictionary, 17 Aug. 2015, Available here.
4. “Murder.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 July 2018, Available here.
5. “First Degree Murder Penalties and Sentencing.” Findlaw, Available here.
6. “Involuntary Manslaughter Overview.” Findlaw, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Thugs Strangling Traveller” By Anonymous Indian artist. Made for Capt. James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow, 1829-1840 – From Frances Pritchett’s website, Columbia University, originally from the British Library (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “152819” (CC0) via Pixabay

About the Author: Upen

Upen, BA (Honours) in Languages and Linguistics, has academic experiences and knowledge on international relations and politics. Her academic interests are English language, European and Oriental Languages, Internal Affairs and International Politics, and Psychology.

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