Criminal defence lawyers are often asked to explain the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. Even though the general public hears these terms all the time – on the news, in the media, and on television crime shows – people are often confused about the difference between the three offences.
First-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter are all types of homicide. A person commits homicide when, directly or indirectly, by any means, he causes the death of another human being. However, the law recognizes that within the spectrum of possible homicides, there are various different degrees of culpability. Thus, the broad category of homicide has been divided into three subcategories: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. Each subcategory reflects the level of culpability that we impute to the nature of the homicide.
According to s. 231(2) of the Criminal Code, first-degree murder refers to a murder that is both planned and deliberate. A murder is planned if it was conceived of and thought out before it was carried out. A a murder committed in the heat of an argument, where the murderer had absolutely no intention to kill the victim before the argument began, would not be considered planned. A murder is deliberate if the acts involved were intended and purposeful. The plan to kill need not be elaborate or complicated and the deliberation need not be lengthy. All that matters is that you planned to kill the person at some point and that you deliberately carried out your plan. Though planning and deliberation usually go hand in hand, this is not always the case. For example, if you planned to kill someone by running them over with your car, and then by coincidence, you accidentally ran over them while you were driving your car to the store one day, the murder would have been planned but not deliberate. Thus, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that both planning and deliberation must be present for the murder to be considered first degree. According to the Criminal Code, contract killing is always planned and deliberate.
There are two reasons that a homicide could be categorized as first-degree murder regardless of whether it was planned or deliberate. According to s. 231(4), murdering an officer of the peace is always first-degree murder. For the purposes of this section, “officer of the peace” includes any member of the police force or anyone who works at a prison In addition, a murder is considered first-degree murder if it is committed in the course of the commission of an offence listed in ss. 231(5) or 231(6). The listed offences are hijacking, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, forcible confinement, hostage taking, terrorism, intimidation, or any offence committed on behalf of a criminal organization.
Second-degree murder is any murder that is not first-degree murder. Section 231(7) of the Code states that any murder that cannot be characterized as first-degree, is considered second-degree murder. However, to be second-degree murder, the homicide must be characterized as “murder” as opposed to “manslaughter”. A homicide is categorized as a murder if the defendant intended to kill the victim. Thus, second-degree murder is a catchall category for all intentional homicides that do not fall under the specific categories of first-degree murder.
Manslaughter is the final category of homicides. Section 234 of the Criminal Code tells us that any culpable homicide that is not murder is manslaughter. Since “murder” is defined as intentional killing of a human being, any murder committed without intent to kill is manslaughter. The most common types of manslaughter criminal defence lawyers in the Toronto area encounter are unlawful act manslaughter and manslaughter by criminal negligence. The former refers to situations where an individual does something illegal that unintentionally leads to another person’s death. For example, if you were to break the law by carelessly firing your gun in a public place and you unintentionally killed someone, you could be charged with the unlawful act manslaughter. There are various mental states that mitigate in an accused person’s favour in situations where there is less than an actual intent to kill. Criminal negligence requires that the person’s act or omission qualified as a “marked departure” from the standard of behaviour expected of a reasonable person. The offence also requires that death or bodily harm was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s act or omission. The foreseeability requirement means that a reasonable person in the defendant’s place would have realized that the actions or omissions perpetrated would put another individual’s life in danger. An omission can only be considered criminal negligence if the defendant had a positive duty to act and failed to do so. The law does not impose a duty on individuals to go to the aid of others in distress. If a passerby failed to act to save a drowning swimmer it would not be viewed as criminally negligent since the passerby has no legal duty to go to the swimmer’s aid.
Under s. 232, if a person commits a murder in a heat of passion caused by provocation, the murder charge will be reduced to manslaughter. Provocation is defined as a wrongful act or insult that would deprive an ordinary person of the power of self-control. Drunkenness or any drug induced mental state that would affect an individual’s ability to form the requisite intent to kill, would reduce murder to manslaughter.
Though the distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter are meant to distinguish between more and less blameworthy behaviour, all three offences carry serious penalties. Individuals found guilty of first or second-degree murder will be sentenced to life in prison. A person convicted of first degree murder is only eligible for parole after serving 25 years of their life sentence. A person convicted of second-degree murder will generally be eligible for parole after 10 years imprisonment. An individual convicted of manslaughter, the least “serious” type of homicide, is still liable to a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life. In cases where manslaughter was committed using a firearm, the offence also carries a minimum sentence of four years. In other cases, there is no minimum sentence for manslaughter and the penalty is left to the discretion of the trial judge.