How prosecutors determine manslaughter or murder charges

On Behalf of | May 24, 2022 | Homicide, Manslaughter, Violent Crimes |

Our legal system uses various terms to refer to the manner in which someone takes another person’s life. A prosecutor’s job includes pursuing criminal charges against these alleged criminals. In some cases, these charges are classified as manslaughter or murder. 

Having a clear understanding of the difference between manslaughter and murder is an important distinction as these crimes carry different weights within the law, including the severity of punishment applicable to guilty parties. 

How do manslaughter and murder charges differ?

The primary difference between these two criminal offenses is premeditation, which equates to preplanning, or intent. Prosecutors can file manslaughter charges against a defendant that they believe accidentally caused another person’s death. An example of this is hitting and killing a pedestrian while operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Prosecutors may also pursue manslaughter charges against a defendant they believe killed someone else in the heat of the moment like if an argument escalated, resulting in one of the party’s death.

Murder charges, on the other hand, are generally filed against defendants who execute a plan to take someone else’s life. Prosecutors can also pursue murder instead of manslaughter charges against a defendant who is accused of killing someone while they were committing another crime like robbery, carjacking or abduction. 

Variances within criminal charges

Manslaughter charges may either be voluntary or involuntary. The latter offense is often referred to as criminally negligent homicide. It involves someone killing another person in a fit of anger before they can stop to think about their actions. 

Different criminal charges apply for voluntary versus involuntary manslaughter. In Missouri, involuntary manslaughter charges carry anywhere from a 5- to 15-year prison sentence. A fine is sometimes added to the sentence. 

Murder is classified as either first-degree or second-degree. Prosecuting first-degree murder charges means the defendant allegedly planned the crime prior to execution. In Missouri, if a defendant is found guilty, they can be sentenced to the death penalty. Second-degree murder means the defendant willingly took another person’s life, but the act was not premeditated. Defendants charged with a second-degree offense can, at most, face a life sentence in prison if convicted. 

The defining line between murder and manslaughter charges is how the victim loses their life. It is the burden of the prosecutor to prove their case against a defendant, depending on the circumstances of the death. 

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