Having discussed the process for bringing criminal charges against a person, the substance of some crimes should be discussed.


Homicide simply means the killing of a person by another person. Not every homicide is murder, or even a criminal act. For example, in states that have the death penalty, the lawful execution of a convicted murderer is a homicide, but it is legally considered murder. Most of the time, however, when one person kills another, some crime has been committed.


Murder is considered the worst form of homicide. This is because, in order to constitute murder, the killing must be premeditated and completely unjustified.

In the states that retain the death penalty, murder is typically the only crime for which that punishment is available. Obviously, murder is generally considered to be the worst crime a person can commit.

Most basically, murder is defined as the killing of a human being with "malice aforethought." "Malice aforethought" means that, before and during the killing, the killer harbored some extremely culpable mental state. Traditionally, there are 4 mental states that can qualify as the malice aforethought necessary for a killing to constitute murder. Only one of them needs to be present. They are

  1. intent to kill
  2. intent to cause severe bodily harm
  3. extreme recklessness which the actor knows creates a risk of death
  4. intentional commission of a felony.

If a person acts with any one of those four mental states while they kill another person, they are guilty of murder.

Recently, some state laws have created degrees of murder. Typically, there are two degrees of murder, with first being the most severe, and second degree murder being slightly less severe.

Generally, second-degree murder is a killing which is not intentional, but where the killer is still at fault. For example, if someone acts with extreme recklessness, and engages in activity which any reasonable person would know puts other people at risk of death, and a death results, they are guilty of second-degree murder. Drunk driving is a common example of such an activity.


Manslaughter is also an unlawful killing, but one in which the killer is somewhat less culpable (though they still bear some degree of fault) than with murder.

It should be clear, however, that manslaughter is still a very serious crime, and can carry prison sentences of many years.

There are 2 basic forms of manslaughter: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is generally defined as the intentional killing of a person, but without the premeditation required for murder, or the killing of a person as a result of a severe provocation, with no cooling-off period. For example, catching a spouse in an act of adultery, and killing the spouse while catching him or her in the act, can traditionally be treated as manslaughter, rather than murder. However, killing the spouse some time after catching them would be murder. What constitutes an "adequate provocation" is determined on a case-by-case basis, but it must be something which would, at least momentarily, make it very difficult for a reasonable person to behave rationally.

Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of a person without any intent, but through some form of extreme negligence. The line between involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder is often blurry, since it's hard to nail down just where "criminal negligence" ends and "extreme recklessness" begins.


Basically, theft is the taking of the property of another, with intent to steal it. "Stealing" property means permanently depriving the owner of its use.


One of the most common forms of theft, by far, is shoplifting. It occurs hundreds of times around the country every day. It's not clear exactly why it's so common, but there are a few obvious causes.

First of all, it's sometimes very easy to do without getting caught. Many people simply see an item they want, pocket it, and walk out with nobody knowing.

Also, many people view shoplifting as a victimless crime, especially if they're stealing from a large retailer ("It's just one item, they can afford to lose it"). Of course, shoplifting costs retailers, large and small, hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Due to intense competition, profit margins in retail tend to be very thin, so they can't afford to simply absorb these losses. Instead, these losses are reflected in the price of retail goods.

Shoplifting, in most states, is a very serious crime. While it doesn't always result in jail time, especially for first offenses involving items of relatively little value, it certainly can. And a conviction of shoplifting will almost always carry a hefty fine.


Robbery is a much more serious crime than simple theft. Robbery involves the taking of property from another person (with the intent of stealing it) by physical force.

Most states have laws which make it an even worse crime if a deadly weapon is used ("armed robbery").

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