Murder versus Manslaughter

When the prosecutor announced that Cayde Lee Lish would be charged with voluntary manslaughter, the public was outraged. Citizens did not understand why Lish was not charged with first degree murder, and openly expressed their distrust for our local law enforcement community, the police, and the prosecuting office. The problem is that people simply do not understand, for a variety of reasons, why the charge of manslaughter was appropriate for this case. The issue was not simply a plea deal because the prosecutor lacked adequate evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt but rather because the crime fit within the perimeters of manslaughter and not first degree murder.

What happened?

Just before 1am on October 6, 2012, Jerimiah Paiz and Lish were engaged in an altercation outside a local restaurant that ultimately led to Lish fatally stabbing Paiz. Although, at the time, the public was not aware of Lish’s violent criminal history, hundreds of Facebook posts revealed the community’s disgust of the situation. People were angry that the prosecuting office did not file first degree murder charges against Lish, claiming that the prosecutor had enough evidence to prove Lish committed the crime. There lies the issue, why did the prosecutor file voluntary manslaughter charges instead of first degree or even second degree murder?

First, why do people advocate for first degree murder in these types of situations? Well, to begin with, in times of tragedy people are more emotionally charged. Individuals feel offended, unsafe, defensive and distrusting. Even though, in this situation, the point of blame is apparent and immediate, people want to feel whole and right again. In order to feel as such, people justify their reactions by wanting to find justice in the most harmful of ways, regardless of personal rights and moral boundaries. 
Ok, let’s talk legal definitions here. Don’t worry; I will explain everything, even if you don’t understand legal terminology. I will outline the four most recognized terms regarding the influence in the death of another: first degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter (which will also include vehicular manslaughter). There are additional degrees such as third-degree, unintentional, and willful but I won’t be covering those in this post.

Murder, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is the “…killing of a human being with malice aforethought” (Garner, 2010, pg 875). In other words, the killing was intentional. First degree murder, therefore, is “…willful, deliberate, or premeditated, or that is committed during the course of another dangerous felony” (Garner, 2010, pg 876). For instance, if someone hits a pedestrian (resulting in death) with a vehicle while trying to drive away after committing an armed robbery, that person could be charged with felony murder.

Second-degree murder is not aggravated by the circumstances that make first degree murder more serious. For example, many “heat of passion” type scenarios fall into this category. The intent is to cause harm and possibly to kill but the crime was not premeditated. Many people refer to second-degree murder as impulsive killings. A spouse, for instance, who physically hits the other during a domestic violence fight and thus, resulting in death would be considered second-degree murder. I would be naïve not to recognize that you may be thinking self-defense but that’s not the reference here. I will cover intimate partner violence extensively in other posts.

Voluntary manslaughter, by definition, refers to the act of killing another human being because of circumstances such as provocation (Garner, 2010). The situation involving Paiz and Lish is defined by these perimeters; Lish used a weapon during the physical altercation, which resulted in fatal injuries. If Lish had gone to the restaurant with the intention of killing Paiz, Lish would be guilty of first degree murder. However, no evidence proved such a situation was present.

Involuntary manslaughter is, in my opinion, one of the lesser complicated forms involving homicide. The act is defined as the killing of another that lacks any intention or malice but is committed with criminal negligence or during the commission of another crime that falls outside of the felony-murder law (Garner, 2010). For example, if a driver runs a stop sign resulting in a collision that killed a passenger, the driver would be guilty of involuntary manslaughter (also vehicular manslaughter). 
Why are there so many degrees defined under murder?
This was not always the case, the common law definition of murder was not initially subdivided. It may be of surprise to you that current revisions of the Model Penal Code do not recognize the subdivided definitions. In fact, there are still states, within the United States, that do not recognize the varying degrees of murder. The State of Idaho statute recognizes two degrees of murder, which outlines the acts that determine whether one is guilty of murder in the first or second degree (Idaho Legislature, 2014). California and Arizona both recognize two degrees of murder. Georgia, on the other hand, only recognizes one degree of murder. Currently, there is not an exhaustive list of all U.S. states that identify what degrees of murder. However, a simple Google search of state and murder classification will provide you with the information you are looking for.

I hope this has helped those who didn’t quite understand the perimeters of murder and manslaughter. If you have any questions or need additional clarification, don’t hestitate to ask and I will do my best to provide you with reliable information and credible sources. 
I would like to thank the family of JD Paiz for consenting to this writing. Although I wrote this as an unbiased observer, my goal is to educate others so that we, as a community, can support the criminal justice processes and their goals to protect the rights of all. May JD be forever be in your hearts.

Works cited
Garner, B. A. (2010). Black's Law Dictionary . St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters.
Idaho Legislature. (2014). Title 18 Crimes and Punishments; Chapter 40 Homicide. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from Idaho Legislature: http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/…/T…/T18CH40SECT18-4003.htm