Cracked's Big Questions: 5 Key Differences Between Murder And Manslaughter
Welcome to Cracked's Big Questions, where we try to explain concepts in the hopes that we'll all be a little less of a dumbass than we were before. We're gonna take a look at death, specifically the arguably worst kind of death: An untimely death at the hands of another human being, and the multiple ways the legal system could categorize that vile act in court. Is it murder? Is it manslaughter? Something else? What are the distinctions between them? Well, I decided to make my Google search history look hella suspicious, so you don't have to. And because this is Cracked, we're, of course, gonna explain this through the lens of pop culture.
Now, we're gonna be covering this from the perspective of the U.S. justice system, and even that varies depending on the jurisdiction. Results may differ based on location ...
The main difference between murder and manslaughter boils down to the mindset of the killer leading up to the killing. A typical case of first-degree murder has to include the trifecta of intent, premeditation, and malice aforethought. The killer had to want to kill that person, plan out how to do it, and have no regard for human life. However, there are some instances that would result in a first-degree murder charge that don't exactly fit that exact definition. And to explain this, we're gonna look at Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2.
Both movies tell the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), who is out for revenge against the squad of assassins that tried to kill her and her unborn baby. In a flashback at the end of the first movie, we see The Bride write out a list of everyone on the squad in the order she plans to kill them.
You'd think airport security would be a tad more inquisitive about that katana a mere 2 years after 9/11 … Anyway, the fact that she wrote this DEATH LIST FIVE in big letters in black and red pens while sitting next to her samurai sword is evidence of the trifecta: Malice, intent, and premeditation. The three targets on the list she actually kills (#1 O-Ren, #2 Vernita, and #5 Bill) would be at least one first-degree murder charge in the U.S. for Vernita. The killings of O-Ren in Japan and Bill in Mexico would be handled by those countries, plus make this whole affair an extradition nightmare.
Now, The Bride didn't kill #3 Budd or #4 Elle. Elle kills Budd before The Bride could make her way back to him after he buried her alive, and The Bride plucked Elle's one remaining eye out and left her flailing around the bathroom in Budd's trailer, so her fate is left uncertain. If Elle were to later die as a result of her injuries from that fight, including any of the infinitely possible staph infections from Budd's bathroom, The Bride could possibly face another first-degree charge.
But right before The Bride and Elle had their epic trailer battle, Elle had killed Budd by placing a black mamba snake inside a suitcase full of cash. This would also be considered first-degree murder in one of three ways. The first is because Elle had intentionally placed the snake there, expecting it to attack Budd when he opened the case, which would show the requisite malice, intent, and premeditation.
The second option doesn't require any of those three qualifiers thanks to a little something called the Felony Murder Rule, which in most states means that if someone is killed during the commission of a "dangerous" felony, everyone involved in the commission of that felony could be charged with first-degree murder. Elle showed up at Budd's trailer to buy a Hattori Hanzō sword he stole from a woman he kidnapped and buried alive the night before. That makes Elle guilty of being an accessory to kidnapping and murder after the fact, knowingly purchasing stolen property, and then stealing said stolen property.
The third option comes by way of Murder by Specified Means. This charge is reserved for killers who used particularly heinous methods. This covers ambush killings, drive-by shootings, bombings, poisonings, or other instances where the killer either wanted to make a statement or just be extra about it. And Elle having a notepad in her pocket filled with trivia about the exact same kind of snake that killed Budd, in her handwriting no less, sure as hell seals the deal here.
On the other hand, considering the state of that trailer plus the fact that less than 24 hours earlier, Budd was being ordered by his boss to unclog a toilet at a strip club, Elle's lawyer could possibly argue that it was a mercy killing.
Second-degree murder refers to intentional killings without the element of premeditation. Typically, these are crimes of passion. The disregard for human life exists at the moment of the killing, as does the intent to kill (although not always), but they just didn't plan to kill them beforehand.
To explain this, we'll look at the ending of the movie Se7en. After five of the seven deadly sins murder victims (gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, and pride) have been found, the killer, John Doe, surrenders himself to the police and offers a deal. He will plead guilty to all seven murders and lead them to the location of the wrath and envy victims, but only if the case's detectives Mills and Somerset take him there.
With this being the grand finale of Doe's plan, Mills and Somerset know he's got some trick up his sleeve, but they go along with it anyway. Mills clearly does not have any regard for John Doe's life, and as a cop, he is prepared to kill him if he has to, but that's not the same as intent. It's only when they arrive at their destination that Doe tells Mills how he envies the life Mills had with his wife, Tracy. Somerset opens a package that was just delivered via courier, and inside the box, he discovers Tracy's severed head. When Mills finds out, in that moment of wrath, he makes his decision to kill John Doe. Malice and intent to kill, but no premeditation.
Where Manslaughter Comes In
Second-degree murder also applies in situations where the killer only intended to inflict pain or injury and ended up killing someone. They could have stopped themselves; they just chose not to. Contrast this with voluntary manslaughter, where it's concluded that any reasonable person probably would've done the same thing under the circumstances. The line between the two can blur quite a bit because there are often mitigating circumstances that would lessen culpability mixed with reckless acts that could increase it. Sometimes it's hard to tell if someone took things too far or if things just got out of hand.
For this, we turn to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. For a hero that has a rule about not killing, Batman most likely would've racked up a pretty substantial body count. Statistically speaking, there's no way he could've taken on wave after wave of henchmen while armed with bat-shaped throwing knives, pocket-sized hand grenades, sticky bombs, grapple guns, and custom fit carbon-fiber body armor with freaking blades sticking out of his forearms without any of those bad guys ending up dead. Bruce Wayne purposely suiting up each night and seeking out these fights sets up a pattern of behavior that would qualify those killings as second-degree murder at the very least.
But the killing of Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight could arguably be a case of voluntary manslaughter. Harvey was holding a gun to a child's head and about to flip a coin to determine whether or not he was gonna shoot him.
It could be argued that anyone would try to tackle him to save the kid while he was distracted by that coin in the air. Maybe not off the edge of a building four stories off the ground, but anyone wearing the Batsuit who also had years of ninja training would think their odds were pretty good.
There is another form of second-degree murder (third-degree in a couple of states) that could have Batman written all over it, and that is called Depraved Indifference Murder. It's when someone commits a reckless act that they know has a high likelihood of causing death and does it anyway.
A lot of things Batman did fits the bill, and he was incredibly lucky to have not killed anyone in the process, like deploying bombs on the highway out of the back of the Batmobile to take out the police cars chasing him… Or shooting out a set of glass doors in a parking garage so the Batpod could take a shortcut through a shopping mall … Or right before that, when he exploded a bunch of parked cars to clear himself a path. Oh, but Batman would've known that no one was actually in any of those parked cars, right? (Say, like the 2 children in a parked car who narrowly avoid batsplosion about a minute into this clip?)
But Batman (and his accessory Jim Gordon) did get at least one confirmed case of Depraved Indifference Murder in Batman Begins when he killed Ra's al Ghul. Gordon destroyed the train supports using the Batmobile while Batman fought Ra's on the train above. The train ran off the tracks into the parking garage of Wayne Tower and somehow exploded like an oil refinery despite the train and the microwave emitter on board both being electric.
Of course, no bystanders were killed by these events, thanks again to plot convenience, but authorities were not going to be able to identify Ra's al Ghul's remains when they found them in the wreckage. As far as they are concerned, he could've been just an innocent victim of the crash. The Gotham PD would likely not be in charge of that investigation, and state and federal agencies aren't just gonna take the word of the masked vigilante who technically caused the crash in the first place. But their ears would definitely perk up at the part where he tells them, "Oh yeah … that dead guy is the man who trained me."
Involuntary Manslaughter and Third-Degree Murder
On the lower tier of this felony spectrum, we have involuntary manslaughter, which could also go by several different names like negligent homicide or criminal negligence, depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction. This is where a death occurs unintentionally or accidentally, but someone is responsible regardless. No premeditation, no intent, and no malice other than someone not caring to paying attention well enough in the moment to prevent it.
There aren't a ton of examples in pop culture that might constitute involuntary manslaughter because Hollywood is typically pretty good at showing the gravity of these situations. These are typically the guilt-ridden "I made a mistake" part of a character's tragic backstory that sets up their redemption arc.
But also in the third-degree category, there's the Non-Violent Felony Murder Rule, when a death occurs during the commission of a low-level felony or misdemeanor that wouldn't normally pose such a risk. A lot of states have done away with this rule, violent or otherwise because it can be difficult to prove culpability based on their level of involvement in the initial felony. Look at Fight Club.
In the movie, when Project Mayhem executes "Operation Latte Thunder," where their goal was two-fold: Destroy a piece of corporate art, and trash a franchise coffee bar. Both goals were to cause property damage in excess of $1,000, making it a felony, and they did this in the dead of night with no one else around, so the act itself is non-violent. (Albeit more than a little convoluted and pointless.)
But the cops shot and killed Bob during the escape. Surely, every member of Project Mayhem who was at the scene would be culpable under this rule, but when they brought Bob's body back to the house and buried him, they made everyone there accessories to the crime. Just spare a thought for the guy who happened to join Project Mayhem that day. In the back of his head, he might be thinking, "Hold up … I didn't shave my head for this! I was just learning how to make soap! What are you people getting me into here?!?"
While we're on the topic of murder, here's a little… Well, let's just call it a side topic because "bonus round" just sounds way too creepy, but it came up during our research that we felt it deserved a mention.
Have you ever thought about how messed up it is that there have been enough instances of people getting murdered in large numbers that we've had to sort them into three distinct categories? There are clear definitions differentiating between mass murder, serial murder, and spree killings.
Mass murder is defined as the murder of four or more people during a single event in one place. A spree killing is killing two or more people in multiple locations, generally with no more than seven days between victims. Serial killers will kill three or more people generally over the course of more than 30 days, with an inactive "cooling off period" between kills where they go back to their normal lives. Serial killers also typically have a specific profile and a signature theme to their killings that tie them together somehow. Just based on those definitions, it's interesting to look at examples from movies and see where they fit.
The Bride from Kill Bill was a spree killer because she definitely didn't "cool off" between murders, but given her massacre of the Crazy 88 gang at the House of Blue Leaves, she also qualifies as a mass murderer.
Jason's mother from the original Friday the 13th is technically a spree killer. As was Jason in the first sequel, but it wasn't until part three came out that Jason had the requisite "cooling off" period that qualified him as a serial killer.
Based solely on these definitions, though, John Doe from Se7en may not technically be a serial killer. He has the signature and the profile of one, buuuut he really only had two kills at his own hand. He killed the gluttony victim and Tracy Mills himself, but he forced the greed victim to kill himself, the sloth victim was found alive, he forced someone else to kill the lust victim, and gave the pride victim the choice to kill herself or call for help, and provoked Detective Mills to kill him out of wrath. John Doe was a sick puppy for sure, but from a behavioral analysis standpoint, he's in a category all his own.
We just figured it was an interesting thought exercise. Feel free to discuss these topics with those around you … you know, in case you're in a situation where you need to end a first date like right now.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock