Difference between Culpable Homicide and Murder

In law, both culpable homicide and murder are serious offences that result in severe punishment. There are subtle differences in the two offences within the English common law system of justice and we will take a closer look at these in the following article.


Culpable Homicide vs Murder
International murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2011

Culpable homicide is the term that is used within the English common law system of justice. The countries where the term is applied include Canada, India, Pakistan, Scotland, Singapore and South Africa. The term is inapplicable within the jurisdictions of the United States. Originating in Scottish law, the term culpable homicide refers to the “unplanned” or “unintentional” criminal act that resulted in death of a human being.

In law, murder is the act of killing of a human being with intent and malice aforethought. In English common law, murder is malum in se (Latin) – an evil act within itself. This evil nature of the act allows the law not to consider the specific details to claim the particular murder a crime. Many jurisdictions have a system of degrees for murder cases. First and second degree murders exist in most jurisdictions. In United States murder law, there is an additional third-degree murder. The degrees given to the specific murder case are derived from the level of aggravating factors accompanying the specific case.

Comparison chart

Culpable homicide Murder
The term is not used in the United States law system The term is used in the United States law system
Not all culpable homicides are murders All murders are culpable homicides
Is a negligent act Is an intentional act
Is the less serious offence Is the more serious offence

Culpable Homicide vs Murder

What is the difference between culpable homicide and murder?

  • In U.S. law, the term culpable homicide is not used. There is the term “manslaughter” instead, which refers to the class of similar acts as described by the term “culpable homicide” in the English common law system of justice.
    The term murder, on the other hand, refers to the same category of criminal acts both in U.S. law and in English common law.
  • The key difference between culpable homicide and murder is in the state of mind of the killer at the time the act of killing took place. Culpable homicide in most cases is an act of negligence. Murder, on the other hand, is the act of intent. One of the core principles on which criminal law operates is borrowed from Roman law and states that “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea.” This principle is roughly translated as “a person doesn’t fully commit a criminal act, unless in his mind he also commits it.” “Mens rea,” or “guilty in mind” refers to the murder. On the other hand, a person who kills someone without having the idea of murder in mind, is committing culpable homicide. This distinction is often applied, for example, for criminal acts that result from reckless driving, or being under the influence of alcohol or other substances while “playing” with guns. In general, murder is a premeditated act, and culpable homicide is not.
    Let’s take a look at the following example. A person driving while being intoxicated kills someone on the road as a result of an accident. If the subsequent investigation shows that the driver didn’t know the person who was killed, and had no motive for killing him, then this is the culpable homicide case. If, on the other hand, the investigation shows that the driver had a motive to kill the person, then this is a premeditated murder.
  • Not all culpable homicides are murders. For example, if one person kills another after the provocative act of the latter, most probably that would be a culpable homicide, but not a murder. On the other hand, all murders are necessarily culpable homicides.
  • In general, culpable homicide is a less serious offence than murder. The former results in comparatively milder sentences for the perpetrator than the latter.
Sir Edward Coke
Sir Edward Coke, a British lawyer responsible for the traditional common law definition of murder: “Murder is when a man of sound memory and of the age of discretion unlawfully killeth within any country of the realm any reasonable creature in rerum natura under the King’s peace with malice aforethought…”