It is always a tragedy when someone loses their life. Death can result from all types of accidents, and occasionally from an intentional act. When the law determines death was the result of another person's unlawful actions, the state may bring homicide charges, one of the most serious crimes possible. For many people, homicide, murder and manslaughter may seem like the same thing, but the law treats them each differently, with vastly different penalties.

Homicide in Massachusetts

Under Massachusetts law, homicide is the unlawful killing of another, which encompasses the crimes of murder and manslaughter. In most cases, accidents are not considered homicide, unless the person charged was acting in a negligent or reckless manner.


Murder is the intentional killing of another. This can be charged in the first degree or second degree, depending on the case. First degree murder is the most serious homicide charge, which is committed with deliberately premeditated malice, or with extreme atrocity or cruelty.

Second degree murder is distinguished by the lack of a premeditation requirement. A death that occurred as part of a different felony crime such as robbery, rape or another serious crime can be charged as first or second degree murder. This is known as "felony murder."


Involuntary manslaughter involves the unlawful killing of another as the result of reckless conduct, or during the commission of a dangerous battery. Voluntary manslaughter, however, is a common law crime, and involves some sort of mitigating circumstances to reduce the crime down from murder, such as a "heat of passion" claim.

Felony Murder

For first degree felony murder to apply, the death has to occur in the commission, or attempted commission of a crime punishable by life imprisonment. This could include arson, kidnapping, rape, or burglary. Second degree felony murder involves the death of another in the course of a felony, which is punishable by less than life in prison. Even if a co-criminal dies in the commission of the felony crime, the surviving suspect may be charged with their death as a felony murder charge.

Attempted Murder

Even where no one is killed, a defendant can be charged with attempted murder. Attempted murder requires the intent to commit murder, with the defendant taking an overt act towards committing murder by poisoning, drowning, strangling or any other means not constituting an assault . Talking about killing someone is not enough to show attempted murder. The prosecution must prove that the defendant took some physical action towards completing the act.


The penalties for homicide charges depend on the fact surrounding the crime, including the defendant's prior record, and the type of victim, with a maximum state penalty of life in prison. In Massachusetts, the death penalty was abolished in 1984, although the last executions to take place in the Commonwealth were in 1947. However, the death penalty is still a possible sentence where murder charges are prosecuted as a federal crime.

Murder faces the harshest possible penalties, with up to life in prison. For first degree murder, there is no possibility of parole without the governor's intervention.

Manslaughter is punishable by up to twenty years of prison, and a $1,000 fine. If manslaughter involves an incendiary device, explosion, or chemical weapon, the penalties are enhanced, with a possible life term in prison.

Attempted Murder is punishable by up to twenty years in prison, and a $1,000 fine.

In addition to prison time and fines, a defendant may face additional civil penalties for wrongful death, often brought by surviving family members of the deceased.

Defenses to Homicide

The available defenses to a murder or homicide charge will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case. Homicide charges may be prosecuted using physical evidence attempting to link the defendant to the crime scene. However, some of the evidence, such as fingerprints, hair or blood samples may be compromised during the police investigation, making that evidence unreliable.

Other defenses include showing a lack of intent, mistaken identity, self-defense, or demonstrating some mitigating circumstances. An experienced legal team, with a successful history of defending clients charged with murder or manslaughter will be able to clarify the issues facing the client. Skilled criminal defense lawyers will identify the elements required for the prosecution to prove their case, and defend their client against all charges.