While just about everyone has probably heard the terms “homicide,” “murder,” and “manslaughter,” many get confused about their definitions and the differences between them. 

If you or someone you care about has been arrested in connection with another person’s death, it’s important to understand what each of these terms mean and how they might relate to your case. While these crimes do share some commonalities, they could result in very different consequences. 


Simply put, homicide is the killing of one person by another. Homicide is not a criminal charge in and of itself, but rather a broad term that encompasses any scenario where one person causes another person’s death. 

This includes illegal killings that constitute a crime as well as legal killings, such as an active-duty soldier killing an enemy combatant. Murder and manslaughter are both types of illegal homicide.

What are the 5 basic elements of criminal homicide?

Criminal homicide is the unlawful killing of another person. While there are many different ways that this can happen, there are five basic elements of criminal homicide: death, causation, intent, malice, and felony.

  1. The death of a person. This is the most essential element of a criminal homicide, as without a death there can be no crime.
  2. Causation is a causal link between the defendant’s actions and the victim’s death. A human being must be the victim. In some jurisdictions, animals may also be considered victims of homicide, but in most cases only humans can be killed unlawfully.
  3. Intent is the mental state of mind required for a particular crime. The death must be caused by the actions of another person. This means that a natural death or suicide is not considered criminal homicide.
  4. Malice is a malicious or evil intent to harm another person. The person who caused the death must have had the intent to kill or cause serious bodily injury. This is what separates homicide from other crimes, such as assault.
  5. The death must have occurred within a certain time frame after the act was committed. This time frame varies by jurisdiction, but is typically between a few seconds and a few years.


Murder is defined as the illegal killing of another person with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is a legal term used to describe the knowledge and intention to do harm. Essentially, murder is illegally and intentionally killing another person. It is also possible in some circumstances to be convicted of murder if another person’s death was caused as a result of highly reckless conduct. 

What are the four types of murder in California?

In California, murder falls under California Penal Code Section 197 and can be charged as first-degree murder, second-degree murder, capital murder, or felony murder.

First-degree murder includes the killing of vulnerable persons such as children, premeditated killings (killings that were planned or designed), and killings that take place while the defendant is committing another serious felony. Penalties may include a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

Second-degree murder includes killings that are intentional but not premeditated, and the causing of another person’s death due to conduct reckless enough that it demonstrates an indifference to the safety and lives of others. Penalties may include a prison sentence of 15 years to life. 

Capital murder is a first-degree murder charge in which the circumstances of the crime are deemed especially egregious by the court. Penalties for capital murder may include life in prison without the possibility of parole or, in certain states, death.  

Felony murder occurs when a person commits a felony which results in another person’s death. Anyone who participates in the felony can be convicted of felony murder. For example, if three people rob a convenience store and the store clerk dies of a heart attack out of fear, all three of the people robbing the store may be convicted of felony murder. 


Manslaughter is generally defined as the unintentional killing of another person and is generally regarded as a less serious charge than murder. Manslaughter can be categorized as voluntary or involuntary.

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person is killed as a result of provocation or in the “heat of passion.” Oftentimes, this means that the defendant did not possess the intent to kill but was provoked by some specific circumstances. Penalties may include up to 11 years in prison.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person dies as a result of the negligence or recklessness of another. Penalties may include up to 4 years in prison.

Vehicular manslaughter, also known as vehicular homicide, occurs when a driver’s negligence or intoxication causes another person’s death. 

California Murder and Manslaughter Defense Attorney

If you or someone close to you has been charged with murder, manslaughter, or a related crime, it’s important that you contact a criminal defense attorney right away. Homicide charges are serious, and you need an attorney who will aggressively defend you in court. 

As a California defense attorney with over three decades of experience representing clients, I can build a strong defense and negotiate the best possible outcome for your case. Call the law offices of Robert M. Helfend today to schedule your free consultation – 800-834-6434.