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|2.2||Show/Hide More||III.B.ii Murder v. Voluntary Manslaughter|
Distinctions within the group of crimes known as “homicide” depend on more than the different mens rea levels associated with a killing. Knowing that a person killed someone (act) with purpose or knowledge (mens rea) does not necessarily mean that the person committed “murder.” Criminal law sometimes takes additional circumstances into account when assigning blame.
In the case of knowingly or purposefully killing someone, provocation or extreme emotional disturbance might mitigate the crime of murder down to voluntary manslaughter. As the cases below demonstrate, different courts have taken different approaches in defining whether and what circumstances might lessen the seriousness of an intentional killing.
As you read these cases, consider the challenges that courts face when they downgrade a crime committed with the same basic act, result, and mens rea. Where and how do courts draw lines between which circumstances mitigate murder, and which circumstances don’t? In determining the effect of provocation or emotional distress, should courts look at a criminal’s individual nature, or hold him/her to an objective standard?
|3.1||Show/Hide More||III.C.i. Involuntary Manslaughter and Similar Offences|
The intentional homicides we just studied required us to differentiate between what were clearly blameworthy acts. Unintentional homicide poses a different problem: how to distinguish between criminal deaths and noncriminal deaths, when the perpetrator did not act with purpose to kill or with knowledge that his conduct would result in killing.
When is a death deemed the result of someone’s criminal negligence or recklessness, and when is it a horrible accident that does not result in criminal liability? Some of the cases in this section present unsavory and unsympathetic protagonists; you may be able to empathize with others. Consider what the courts in each case think the defendants did wrong, and what legal tests they use to make those determinations.
|3.2||Show/Hide More||III.C.ii. Unintentional Murder|
Just as certain factors can bump murder down to manslaughter, others can bump it right back up. The cases in this section examine circumstances considered so extreme that, even though they do not show specific intent to kill or knowledge of killing, they are punished as “unintentional murder.”
The doctrines that raise these homicides from manslaughter to murder have provocative traditional names: depraved heart; abandoned heart; malignant heart; or, more recently, “extreme indifference to the value of human life.” Consider why we punish these unintentional killings more severely than others, and how we distinguish these kinds of homicides from “normal” recklessness or indifference. Is it simply an instinctual feeling that these crimes are more blameworthy? As you read these cases, consider how the main justifications for criminal punishment—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—justify elevating the level of criminal punishment.
|3.3||Show/Hide More||III.C.iii. Felony Murder|
In criminal law, sometimes the result trumps the intention.
Perhaps the least intuitive category of homicide that we will study is felony murder. Under the felony murder rule, accidental and unintentional killings that occur during the commission of a felony are sometimes elevated from unintentional homicide to murder.
The felony murder rule has been controversial. It has evolved in scope over time, and, as the cases below show, is now often limited to inherently dangerous felonies. By transferring intention and blameworthiness from a separate felony to a homicide, the felony murder rule significantly raises the stakes of any felony that may tangentially and even unforeseeably lead to death.
Why might the felony murder doctrine have developed? Consider how courts have limited it over time. What concerns have animated criticisms of the rule? Have the courts’ efforts to limit the rule preserved its usefulness, or is it an unfortunate relic of the past?
|4||Show/Hide More||III.D. The Death Penalty|
Capital punishment has driven the evolution of homicide law in the United States for centuries. Throughout that evolution, questions of fairness and arbitrariness have recurred. Because the death penalty was originally mandatory for murder, states began differentiating between first- and second-degree murder, limiting capital punishment only to the former, more blameworthy crime. As capital punishment gradually became more discretionary, the opposite concern arose: that it would be imposed unevenly and disproportionately to certain defendants, especially minorities. At one point, the Supreme Court suspended the capital punishment system altogether in Furman v. Georgia.
Today, many capital punishment systems attempt to straddle the line: allowing discretion, but not unguided discretion. In some jurisdictions the death penalty has been eliminated. In others, it has been cabined to only the most heinous murders. Ironically, the growing sophistication of capital punishment systems that developed as a response to Supreme Court nullification of death penalty laws has led to a resurgence of executions.
As you read these cases, consider why the death penalty has driven such changes in our criminal adjudication system, and what concerns courts have raised about the application of capital punishment. Have reforms reinstating the death penalty solved the problems the Supreme Court identified? How do concerns about the death penalty fit into the justifications and problems of criminal punishment more generally?
February 20, 2014
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