One of the most common myths I deal with is people having a misconception about what it means to murder as opposed to committing some other serious crime such as homicide or manslaughter. This misconception is so rampant that I would be willing to bet that almost every person who has ever been in trouble for any criminal offense believes they were wrongly charged and that they could have beaten the charge if only it was “murder” instead of some lesser included offense. That’s probably true in many cases (it certainly is for me), but there are certain crimes where the distinction between murder and another serious crime makes a very big difference. So let’s talk about how homicide differs from murder in New Jersey.
In most cases, the term “murder” is an emotive one that often conjures up images of brutal killings or murders committed by serial killers, and that may be why some people make such a big deal out of it. The reality though is that there are many different degrees of murder in NJ (and throughout the country), which range from 1st degree to 4th degree. Murder is typically defined as when someone purposely causes the death of another human being under circumstances involving recklessness, malice, or depravity that demonstrate a complete disregard for life. First and second-degree murders require premeditation (the perpetrator planned to kill that person before they did so), but can also involve an act during the commission of another violent felony crime, or an act to cover up a prior crime. Third-degree murder does not require any advanced planning on the part of the perpetrator and can be committed in furtherance of some other serious offense such as robbery or arson. Finally, fourth-degree murder is usually referred to as criminally negligent homicide (causing the death of another person by criminal negligence) although it’s also sometimes referred to as involuntary manslaughter (if there was no intent to kill).
Of course, what makes all these crimes so interesting for this blog post is that they carry very different sentences depending upon the severity of the charge. First-degree murder carries a potential penalty of 20 years to life in prison with a conviction whereas fourth-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison.
So what’s the lesson here? It probably isn’t that you should try to get yourself charged with murder instead of another crime such as homicide or manslaughter (although there are always exceptions). The real lesson is that when it comes time to discuss your criminal case with an attorney, you need to make sure that you aren’t assuming you were charged with murder when it was some other more serious offense such as 2nd degree aggravated assault. Mistakes like this can have disastrous consequences because they affect whether or not a judge will allow certain evidence at trial and how serious a potential penalty might be.