Blurred Lines: Murder, Manslaughter or Self-Defense

While we sincerely hope that you never find yourself in the position have having to take another person’s life to protect yourself from harm, it’s important to understand that claiming self-defence is not so cut and dry. While you may have protected yourself and quite possibly a third party from someone intent on causing you harm, your assessment will need to align with the opinions of the police, and if charged, a judge and jury.

In this article, we will look at the legal definition of murder, manslaughter, accidental death and self-defence, and see what the distinctions are between each term.


In its simplest terms, murder is the unlawful killing of another person. Usually, the killing needs to be intentional and premeditated to be considered murder. As such, the consequences for this type of action are among the strictest in the land.

One term that you will hear a lot during discussions surrounding murder is malice aforethought. What this means is that the murderer planned out their actions, not necessarily that the murder was done out of spite or ill-will. It can happen that an accidental killing is considered murder, if the murderer only intended to cause serious bodily harm in a way that shows a blatant disregard for human life. For instance, a person who dies from extreme torture is still considered a murder victim, even if the torturer didn’t intend for the person to die.

Murder is often defined by a specific degree, hence why you may hear terms like first, second or even third-degree murder. In essence, first-degree murders tend to be those carried out with extreme measures like bombs, poisons and the like. Another time when first-degree murder charges may arise is if the killing happens during the commission of a dangerous felony, usually if the death is foreseeable as likely by committing the felony. A good example of this could be a car bombing or hijacking.

When there is not such premeditation or other dangerous aspects of the case, the charge tends to be for second-degree murder.


Manslaughter is considered a lesser crime compared to murder, but a crime, nonetheless. Manslaughter is not committed with malice aforethought, which leads to much lighter sentences than murder, although the punishments are still quite severe.

There are two categories of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is considered a crime of passion, or one carried out under extreme provocation. For instance, if a parent kills someone who injured or abused their child, or a spouse who discovers that their adulterous partner in flagrante delicto and kills the partner in a fit of rage. Involuntary manslaughter is when someone acts in a negligent or reckless manner that causes the death of another. You’re more likely to see cases of involuntary manslaughter involving automotive accidents, such as when a person’s drunk driving results in death.

Self-Defence Killing

This type of killing is not considered a crime in the same way as murder or manslaughter. The legal system of most countries recognizes the rights of an individual to protect himself from harm, although there are nuances to the argument. In order for the self-defence argument to apply, the defendant must show that he was at risk of being harmed and that a reasonable degree of force was used to protect his safety or that of a third person. For instance, self-defence is more likely to be accepted if the attacker was killed by a single lucky bullet to the chest than if he was kneecapped then shot between the eyes from point-blank range.

In the United States, different states have different rules when it comes to self-defence. For instance, in some states, you must first make an attempt to escape from the attacker before you can fight back. This is called the duty to retreat. Other states allow you to stand your ground without first trying to retreat, while others only allow you to defend yourself within your home. Of course, there are other relevant factors to consider when looking at a claim of self-defence, including who was the initial aggressor, who escalated a dispute and whether the defendant was engaged in criminal activity at the time that he asserts the defence.

Accidental Killing

The last distinction we are looking at is accidental killing, which is when someone causes the death of another by accident, and also not related to any sort of criminal activity. For instance, someone who is obeying all traffic laws but unfortunately runs into a pedestrian while trying to avoid an accident. While there is no criminal liability on the driver, he may still be sued in civil court for causing the death of someone else.

We hope the information in this article has proven useful to you. Would you like us to cover more on this topic? Let us know in the comments below.

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