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Murder, Manslaughter, and Homicide

Murder, Manslaughter, and Homicide are all crimes.

But what do we call them in Wisconsin?  Can you be charged with all three?

If you’ve watched television, read the newspaper, or talked to anyone about crime, you’ve certainly heard the words murder, manslaughter, and homicide used.  They all mean generally the same thing: one person kills another person.  And while murder and homicide are generally thought to be more aggravated than manslaughter, they’re all crimes in certain jurisdictions.

As this article will explain, with one exception we refer to this crime in Wisconsin as homicide.  At Meyer Van Severen, S.C. we defend all versions of this criminal offense.  We’ve defended “routine” homicide cases.  And we’ve defended “high profile” homicide cases.  Matt Meyer has even defended a murder charge, using Wisconsin law from the 1980s.  The murder defense attorneys at Meyer Van Severen will fight any charge.  Call our top criminal defense law firm at (414) 270-0202 now.


What is manslaughter?

Per the Merriam-Webster website in May 2019, manslaughter is defined “as the unlawful killing of a human being without express or implied malice.”  Malice, defined by the same source, is “desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another.”

Currently in Wisconsin, manslaughter is not a defined crime.  That being said, manslaughter is generally charged under other Wisconsin statutes.

For example, second-degree reckless homicide, prohibited by section 940.06 of the Wisconsin Statutes, is committed whenever someone “recklessly causes the death of another human being.”  Even first-degree reckless homicide, prohibited by section 940.02 of the Wisconsin Statutes, could fit a manslaughter charge within it.  That statute prohibits anyone from “recklessly causing the death of another human being under circumstances which show utter disregard for human life…”

Both of these crimes do not require the defendant to have any desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another.


When was manslaughter a defined crime?

Manslaughter was last a defined crime in 1985.  Wis. Stat. sec. 940.05 (1985).  The crime was a Class C felony (10 years prison) at the time, and prohibited causing the death of another human under the following circumstances:

  • Without intent to kill and while in the heat of passion; or
  • Unnecessarily, in the exercise of his privilege of self-defense or defense of others or the privilege to prevent or terminate the commission of a felony; or
  • Because such person is coerced by threats made by someone other than his coconspirator and which cause him reasonably to believe that his act is the only means of preventing imminent death to himself or another; or
  • Because the pressure of natural physical forces causes such a person reasonably to believe that his act is the only means of preventing imminent public disaster or imminent death to himself or to another.

Clearly the focus of manslaughter law wasn’t on “reckless” conduct as we’ve described above.  Instead, the law focused on homicidal acts committed under mitigated circumstances.


What is murder?

Like manslaughter, 1985 was the last year (but for felony murder) that murder was listed as a crime in Wisconsin.  There were two versions:

  1. First-degree murder, prohibited by Wis. Stat. sec. 940.01; and
  2. Second-degree murder, prohibited by Wis. Stat. sec. 940.02.

First-degree murder

First degree murder was a crime with the following definition: Whoever causes the death of another human being with intent to kill that person or another is guilty of a Class A felony.  Importantly, “intent to kill” meant the mental purpose to take the life of another human being.

In 1987 the name of the crime was changed to first-degree intentional homicide, but remained prohibited by section 940.01 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  Importantly, the definition of the crime did not change.  The only change to the statute came in the discussion of mitigating circumstances.  Now, certain mitigating circumstances are listed directly in the statute that clarify affirmative defenses, which mitigate the penalty to 2nd-degree intentional homicide.


Second-degree murder

Second degree murder was defined as follows: Whoever causes the death of another human being under either of the following circumstances is guilty of a class B felony:

  1. By conduct imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life; or
  2. As a natural and probable consequence of the commission of or attempt to commit a felony.

Second-degree murder did not cleanly translate into second-degree intentional homicide, as was the case with first-degree murder.


Felony murder

Felony murder has been on the books since 1987.  Prohibited by section 940.03 of the Wisconsin Statutes, felony murder is committed when the defendant “causes the death of another human being while committing or attempting certain crimes (various battery charges, sexual assault, false imprisonment, etc.).  Felony murder is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Moreover, to convict you, the government must show that the defendant caused the death of the victim.  In order to do that, they must simply show that the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the death.  State v. Oimen, 184 Wis. 2d 423, 516 N.W.2d 399 (Ct. App. 1994).  Additionally, “While committing or attempting to commit” the crime encompasses the immediate flight from the felony.  Id.


What is the current law?

To illustrate, homicide, murder, and manslaughter laws in Wisconsin are as follows:

Obviously there was a push towards unifying the statutes.  In Wisconsin, we generally refer to these are homicide charges.  In conclusion, murder and manslaughter do not describe these charges as they’re currently written.


Meyer Van Severen – Homicide defense attorneys

Indeed, at Meyer Van Severen, we focus 100% of our resources on criminal defense.  We do not practice anything but criminal defense.  While we believe that any criminal allegation should be met with a criminal defense specialist, homicide charges carry the most significant penalties.  So it becomes even more important to hire someone specializing in the field.

Certainly, if you’re looking for a homicide defense attorney, contact Meyer Van Severen immediately at (414) 270-0202.  Obviously we answer phones 24/7.

Attorney Matthew Meyer