From New World Encyclopedia

Homicide (Latin homicidium, homo, human being and caedere, to cut, kill) refers to the act of killing another human being. Although homicide does not necessarily define a criminal act, some jurisdictions use the word to indicate the unlawful killing of a person. Generally, however, homicide includes murder (intentional killing) and manslaughter, as well as non-criminal killings, or "justifiable homicides." There are a number of justifications, including self-defense, execution of capital punishment, and killing enemy combatants during war, that may make homicide legally justifiable. More complex defenses include euthanasia ("mercy killing" or "assisted suicide" at another's request) and abortion (legal termination of the life of an unborn fetus). Related to these is the question of suicide (killing oneself), which is condemned by some cultures and religions while treated as honorable under certain circumstances by others. The issue of whether homicide is morally or spiritually justifiable under any conditions is a question of serious and unresolved debate. However, it is clear that in an ideal, peaceful world there would be no place for the killing of another human being under any circumstances.


Homicide is broadly defined as the killing of one human being by another, either by the act or omission of an act.[1] Homicides may be treated as crimes or as non-criminal, depending upon the situation and the jurisdiction.

Criminal homicide involves the deliberate or negligent death of another. Homicide is considered non-criminal in a number of situations, such as deaths during the course of war. Additionally, the killing of another may be legally justified under certain conditions, such as killing in self-defense.

Religious and cultural perspectives

Issues such as what motives lead to homicide, whether a killer can justify his actions, what the appropriate punishment is (do persons deserve punishment according to the evil they choose to do, regardless of their psychological capacities and unjust social conditions), retribution, and what sort of life can a killer lead if not punished by execution, have been addressed in all human societies. The origins of laws governing homicide, and the social, psychological, and legal issues regarding the nature of such acts can be found in such scriptural passages as the Genesis account of Cain and Abel.[2]

Homicide has occurred throughout human history, recorded in the early stories of most cultures, and condemned in all religions.[3] Some tribal societies enforced justice by the principle of lex talionis: "An eye for an eye, a life for a life." Thus, death was the appropriate punishment for murder. In that tribal society it was understood to be the responsibility of the victim's relatives to exact vengeance upon the perpetrator or a member of his family. This form of justice was common before the emergence of an arbitration system based on the state or organized religion. Indeed, revenge killings are still accepted legal practice in some tribally organized societies, for example in the Middle East and Africa, surviving alongside more advanced legal systems.

Passages in the Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and Jewish scriptures may be interpreted as teaching that killing a human being is a sin under any and all circumstances. The simple "You shall not kill" (Exodus 20.13) in Judaism and Christianity implies absoluteness; and the Islamic warning that "Anyone who kills a believer intentionally will have his reward in hell, to remain there. God will be angry with him and curse him, and prepare awful torment for him." (Qur'an 4.92) and the Hindu statement, "He who commits murder must be considered as the worst offender, more wicked than a defamer, than a thief, and than he who injures with a staff" (Laws of Manu 8.345), emphasize the seriousness of the crime. Indeed, killing may well be considered the single most serious crime, because the harm can never be undone.

Other scriptural passages, however, may be interpreted as restricting the definition of murder to an individual killing for selfish purposes. They permit killing in self-defense, permit killing to prevent greater crimes, sanction state enforcement of the death penalty, and support the waging of war for just cause. Nevertheless, killing in such circumstances is still viewed as evil, simply a lesser evil. The inferior morality of killing in self-defense or in retaliation is highlighted in the two versions of the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible and the Qur'an. In the biblical story God grants Cain a mark to protect him from retaliation, and in the Qur'anic version Abel shows his righteousness by refusing to defend himself from Cain's aggression.

When the victim is a child, the picture is somewhat different. Mythology and fairy tales, as well as scripture, are replete with tales of child abuse and abandonment, with the prevailing sentiment often regarding these as justifiable in order to avoid a worse fate. Moses, for example, was abandoned by his mother in hopes that he would not suffer the inevitable killing of male Hebrew children. In Greek and Japanese folklore and mythology there are tales of infants abandoned by their parents only to be found and raised by childless couples. Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by every level of cultural complexity; from governments that legislate population limits to families who let sickly infants die rather than expend resources to care for them, despite Judao-Christian and Islamic condemnation of all forms of child homicide.[4]

The religious and legal issues regarding killing oneself (suicide) or assisting another to die (euthanasia) are perhaps the most complex and controversial. While many religions condemn suicide, Jainism approves of it as serious penance and in Japanese culture, the Samurai Bushido code of conduct included seppuku (ritual suicide) as a way to regain lost honor. Thus, while not illegal, the act of suicide has led to social and religious condemnation in many cultures. Euthanasia became especially controversial in the twentieth century, when medical advances made it possible to significantly prolong life, often concomitantly prolonging the suffering of the patient. Combining the general prohibition against killing with the condemnation of suicide, "assisted suicide" in many cultures has been deemed illegal.

Criminal homicide

Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently causes the death of another. Murder and manslaughter are both treated as criminal homicide. Euthanasia (the "mercy killing" of a person who requests to die as painlessly as possible) is also considered a criminal form of homicide in many jurisdictions.

Criminal homicide is a malum in se crime, meaning the act is "wrong in itself." This means that it is thought to be inherently wrong by nature, independent of regulations governing the conduct, and is thus distinguished from malum prohibitum, which is wrong only because it is prohibited by law. The (unauthorized) killing of human beings is universally agreed to be wrong by other human beings, regardless of whether a law exists or where the conduct occurs. Every legal system contains some form of prohibition or regulation of criminal homicide.

Homicidal crimes in various jurisdictions include the following:

  • Murder is generally defined as a homicide committed intentionally. It generally carries a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty, depending upon jurisdiction.
  • Manslaughter is the less serious offense of the taking of human life, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder, and carries a less severe sentence than murder. Most legal systems also differentiate between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
  • Criminally negligent homicide is the killing of another person due to negligentful behavior without any intent to harm or kill the person who died. Criminally negligent homicide generally only applies if a pattern of negligence resulted in the death of the individual. This offense is considered less serious than murder, such that someone guilty of this offense can expect a more lenient sentence, often with imprisonment time comparable to manslaughter.
  • Vehicular homicide, or Death by dangerous driving, involves death that results from the negligent or dangerous operation of a vehicle. The victim may be either a person not in the car with the offender, such as a pedestrian or another motorist, or a passenger in the vehicle with the offender.[5]

Many forms of criminal homicide have their own term based on the person being killed.

  • Neonaticide—killing of a newborn within the first 24 hours of life
  • Infanticide—killing of an infant up to one year of age
  • Filicide—killing of one's child
  • Fratricide—killing of one's brother; in a military context, killing of a friendly combatant
  • Sororicide—killing of one's sister
  • Parricide—killing of one's parents
  • Patricide—killing of one's father
  • Matricide—killing of one's mother
  • Mariticide—killing of one's spouse (but has become most associated with the murder of a husband by his wife, as the reverse is given the name uxoricide)
  • Uxoricide—killing of one's wife
  • Child murder—killing of an unrelated child
  • Regicide—killing of a monarch
  • Genocide—killing of a race or ethnic group

Non-criminal homicide

Homicides do not always involve a crime. Sometimes the law allows homicide by permitting certain defenses to criminal charges. Some such defenses include:

  • Justifiable homicide stands on the dividing line between an excuse and an exculpation, taking a case that would otherwise have been a murder, and either excuses the individual accused from all criminal liability or treats the accused differently from other intentional killers. Examples of situations generally considered as justifiable homicide include war, execution of one convicted of a capital crime, crime of passion, and honor killing. More controversially, but in some jurisdictions considered justifiable, are abortion (the killing of the as yet unborn human being or fetus) and euthanasia (the killing of another at their request).
  • Self-defense, which provides that a person is entitled to commit homicide to protect his or her own life from a deadly attack.
  • Insanity defense is a possible defense by excuse, via which defendants may argue that they should not be held criminally liable for breaking the law, as they were "mentally ill" at the time of their allegedly criminal actions. This defense is based on the principle that guilt is determined by examining if the defendant was capable of distinguishing right and wrong. A defendant making this argument might be said to be pleading "not guilty by reason of insanity."
  • Duress is a possible legal defense, usually as an excuse rather than a justification, by which defendants argue that they should not be held liable because the actions that broke the law were only performed out of an immediate fear of injury. Duress is defined as "any unlawful threat or coercion used… to induce another to act [or not act] in a manner [they] otherwise would not [or would]."

Homicides may also be non-criminal when conducted with the sanction of the state. The most obvious example is capital punishment, in which the state determines that a person should die; also, homicides committed during war are usually not subject to criminal prosecution.

Some state sanctioned homicides include:

  • Capital punishment is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for certain crimes known as "capital crimes" or "capital offenses."
  • War, during which the killing of an enemy combatant (a person who takes a direct part in the hostilities of an armed conflict within the law of war) is not considered a criminal offense.
  • In Islamic law (Sharia),
    • Rajm, meaning stoning. In Islamic law, stoning is prescribed as the proper punishment for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or there is pregnancy, or a confession.
    • Qisas, meaning retaliation based on the biblical principle of "an eye for an eye." In the case of murder, it means the right of the heirs of a murder victim to demand execution of the murderer.


  1. Nolo Press, Homicide Definition. Retrieved July 2, 2007.
  2. Pamela Barmash, Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press, 2004). ISBN 0521834686
  3. World Scripture, Murder. Retrieved July 4, 2007.
  4. Lita Linzer Schwartz and Natalie K. Isser, Child Homicide: Parents Who Kill (CRC 2006). ISBN 0849393663
  5. Edward L. Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, "The Determinants of Punishment: Deterrence, Incapacitation and Vengeance (NBER Working Paper 7676, April 2000). Retrieved July 2, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barmash, Pamela. 2004. Homicide in the Biblical World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521834686
  • Collins, Karen-Michelle. 2002. Negligent Homicide/Manslaughter (Involuntary). International Journal of Justice Studies. Retrieved July 2, 2007.
  • Garner, Bryan A. (Ed.) 2004. Black's Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition. Thomson West. ISBN 0314151990
  • Pillsbury, Samuel H. 2000. Judging Evil: Rethinking the Law of Murder and Manslaughter. New York University Press. ISBN 0814766803
  • Schwartz, Lita Linzer, and Natalie K. Isser. 2006. Child Homicide: Parents Who Kill. CRC Press. ISBN 0849393663
  • Uniacke, Suzanne. 1996. Permissible Killing: The Self-Defence Justification of Homicide. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521564581
  • Wilson, Andrew (Ed.) 1991. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. New York: Paragon House. ISBN 0892261293


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