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What is Homicide?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Homicide is a term which is used to describe the killing of a human being by another human being. There are a number of different forms of homicide and while this term is often linked with murder, homicide and murder are actually two different things. Murder is always viewed as a criminal act, while there may be cases in which homicide is not only not criminal, but is actually sanctioned or carried out by the state, usually acting on behalf of its citizens. There are also situations in which it may be viewed as justifiable or as an unfortunate accident.

This term is derived from a Latin word which incorporates the roots for “human” and “to kill.” Rarely, this word can be used to describe someone who commits homicide, rather than the act of killing itself. The “-cide” suffix can be seen in a number of other words, such as “insecticide,” a substance which kills insects, and “herbicide,” a substance which is designed to kill plants.

In some cases, homicide is illegal and is considered murder. These include cases of premeditated murder as well as murder in the heat of the moment or murder committed during the course of a crime. For example, if someone shoots a bank teller during a holdup, this is considered murder and will be prosecuted as such. Likewise, if a police officer is killed by a suspect, this will be considered murder.

It is also possible for homicide to be considered noncriminal in nature. In this case, extenuating circumstances surround the situation and lead law enforcement to conclude that the death is unfortunate but is not illegal. Manslaughter is an example of this type of homicide, as are cases in which people are acquitted by reason of insanity or inability to understand the repercussions of their options. Homicide can also be considered justifiable in cases of self defense; someone who kills an armed carjacker, for example, will not be charged with murder because the person was defending his or her life.

Homicide sanctioned by the state includes capital punishment, in which people are put to death for crimes which are viewed as particularly egregious, as well as military actions. When nations go to war, they do so with the full awareness and knowledge that they will be killing people on the opposing side, and that their side may experience injuries and death. Deaths on the battlefield are not prosecuted as murders, but are considered part of the cost of going to war.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On Sep 20, 2011

My neighbor's grandson is mentally challenged. He committed murder, but he thought it should have been considered homicide, since he was protecting his mother's life.

He didn't take into account that the person he was protecting her from was a police officer. He probably didn't understand much about the situation at all, nor that his mother was wanted for drug trafficking.

So, when a man with a gun broke down the door in the night and wrestled his mother to the ground, he didn't even think about the uniform the man was wearing or the police car parked outside. He simply took the gun out of the drawer, rounded the corner, and shot the officer.

Since he is mentally challenged, the judge took this into account. He had to do time in a mental facility.

By orangey03 — On Sep 20, 2011

When my aunt, who had been abused by her husband for years, finally shot him, it was considered homicide and not murder. His abuse had escalated to the point where she feared for her life.

He had pointed a gun at her head, and she had struggled with him to try and get it away. She succeeded, because he was very drunk, and she killed him so he wouldn't kill her.

She was traumatized, sorry for her actions, and relieved all at once. She no longer had to live in fear, and it was justifiable homicide.

By Azuza — On Sep 19, 2011

@ceilingcat - I agree with you-there is quite a bit of difference between killing someone in a battle and committing a murder.

And homicides can take place in many circumstances-gang violence, crimes of passion, and in the course of committing other crimes. And of course self defense, too. I know they make distinctions in punishment for homicide as to what the circumstances were. I believe the penalties for a premeditated homicide are much stiffer than for a crime of passion.

By ceilingcat — On Sep 19, 2011

I'm glad this article makes a distinction between murder and committing homicide as part of a military action. I know a few people in the military, and I know they have killed people as part of military actions designed to protect our country.

I get really upset when people paint the military as vicious killers or something like that. Most of them are just following orders, first of all. And second of all, someone has to do it. I know I certainly wouldn't want to, so I'm grateful that other people are willing to do our countries so-called "dirty work" for us.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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