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Is It Murder, Manslaughter, or Homicide in Tennessee?

criminal defense lawyerWhen someone dies by means other than a true accident or natural causes, a number of legal terms may be used to refer to that death, including, murder, manslaughter, and homicide. We hear these terms with some frequency, either on television dramas or on the news; however, most of us don’t know how they are defined. What is the difference between murder and manslaughter or between manslaughter and homicide? Which one is worse? How does the State decide which one to charge someone with? A Tennessee criminal defense lawyer explains how murder, manslaughter, and homicide are defined in Tennessee and the potential punishment if convicted of each.


The most serious of the three is murder. Governed by Tennessee Code Section 39-13-202, the offense of first degree murder is defined as follows:

(a)  First degree murder is:

  • A premeditated and intentional killing of another;
  • A killing of another committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate any first degree murder, act of terrorism, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, theft, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child or aircraft piracy; or
  • A killing of another committed as the result of the unlawful throwing, placing or discharging of a destructive device or bomb.

(b)  No culpable mental state is required for conviction under subdivision (a)(2) or (a)(3), except the intent to commit the enumerated offenses or acts in those subdivisions.

In most cases, a case if filed as first degree murder because of the premeditation element found in section (a)(1) above or because the defendant committed the killing during the commission of a felony pursuant to section (a)(2) above. As used in subdivision (a)(1), “premeditation” is defined as an act done after the exercise of reflection and judgment. “Premeditation” means that the intent to kill must have been formed prior to the act itself. It is not necessary that the purpose to kill pre-exist in the mind of the accused for any definite period of time. The mental state of the accused at the time the accused allegedly decided to kill must be carefully considered in order to determine whether the accused was sufficiently free from excitement and passion as to be capable of premeditation. Note that the defendant’s mental state is not an element of the crime if the defendant is charged under section (a)(2) or (a)(3).

If convicted of first degree murder in the State of Tennessee, a defendant faces a punishment of death, imprisonment for life without possibility of parole, or imprisonment for life.

In level of severity, the next most serious of the offenses is second degree murder. Governed by Tennessee Code Section 39-13-210, second degree murder is defined as:

(a)  Second degree murder is:

  • A knowing killing of another; or
  • A killing of another that results from the unlawful distribution of any Schedule I or Schedule II drug, when the drug is the proximate cause of the death of the user.

(b)  In a prosecution for a violation of this section, if the defendant knowingly engages in multiple incidents of domestic abuse, assault or the infliction of bodily injury against a single victim, the trier of fact may infer that the defendant was aware that the cumulative effect of the conduct was reasonably certain to result in the death of the victim, regardless of whether any single incident would have resulted in the death.

In the State of Tennessee, second degree murder is a Class A felony and is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $50,000.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Next on the list is the offense of voluntary manslaughter which is governed by Tennessee Code Section 39-13-211which defines the offense as follows:

(a)  Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional or knowing killing of another in a state of passion produced by adequate provocation sufficient to lead a reasonable person to act in an irrational manner.

Voluntary manslaughter is often referred to as a “heat of passion” killing. The most common illustration used to explain a killing that would typically be charged as voluntary manslaughter is the defendant who found his/her partner/spouse in the throws of passion with someone else. The unexpected discovery (provocation) resulted in a state of passion that might cause anyone to react irrationally.

Voluntary manslaughter is charged as a Class C felony in Tennessee and is punishable by three to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000 if convicted.

Reckless Homicide

Reckless homicide is governed by Tennessee Code Section 39-13-215 and is defined as:

(a)  Reckless homicide is a reckless killing of another.

Charged as a Class D felony in Tennessee, a conviction for reckless homicide carries with it a potential term of imprisonment of two to 12 years and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

Criminally Negligent Homicide

Governed by Tennessee Code Section 39-13-212, criminally negligent homicide is defined as:

(a) Criminally negligent conduct that results in death constitutes criminally negligent homicide.

Negligence is a legal standard that refers to a state of mind. With regard to a defendant’s culpability, negligent conduct is less serious than intentional, knowing or reckless conduct. Criminally negligent homicide is charged as a Class E felony in Tennessee and is punishable by one to six years in prison and/or a fine of up to $3,000.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you (or a loved one) have been charged with murder, manslaughter, or homicide in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Stan Bennett