If you unlawfully cause someone’s death, the likely charges that could be laid against you in Queensland are going to be either murder or manslaughter. But what’s the difference between murder and manslaughter? When might you get charged with one or the other, and what are the consequences of each?
As you’ll see in this article, the best way to look at manslaughter is that it’s “not murder”. So the best place to start is to understand the circumstances that need to exist for a murder charge to be made.
Understanding the Elements of Murder
The Criminal Code in Queensland is a little old-fashioned, so you’d be forgiven for finding the language unwieldy. However, it’s a good place to start, so we’ll set it out here and then try to boil it down into some fundamentals. You’ll find murder in section 302.
(1) Except as hereinafter set forth, a person who unlawfully kills another under any of the following circumstances, that is to say—
(a) if the offender intends to cause the death of the person killed or that of some other person or if the offender intends to do to the person killed or to some other person some grievous bodily harm;
(aa) if death is caused by an act done, or omission made, with reckless indifference to human life;
(b) if death is caused by means of an act done in the prosecution of an unlawful purpose, which act is of such a nature as to be likely to endanger human life;
(c) if the offender intends to do grievous bodily harm to some person for the purpose of facilitating the commission of a crime which is such that the offender may be arrested without warrant, or for the purpose of facilitating the flight of an offender who has committed or attempted to commit any such crime;
(d) if death is caused by administering any stupefying or overpowering thing for either of the purposes mentioned in paragraph (c) ;
(e) if death is caused by wilfully stopping the breath of any person for either of such purposes;
is guilty of
As you can see, there are a few paths that can lead to a murder charge. However, we can draw out the big picture elements. To get to a murder charge, the Police generally need to establish the following core facts:
- That a person is dead;
- That the accused killed the person, in the sense that they caused the person’s death;
- That they intended to cause the person’s death or intended to cause the person grievous bodily harm.
Number 3 is the key element for us to look at because it’s the most common distinction between murder and manslaughter – intention.
For a murder charge to be made out, the Police generally need to establish that the accused had an intention to kill (or cause serious injury to) the deceased, or that the act which caused death was done with “reckless indifference” to human life.
To establish “intention” can be quite challenging because it involves trying to get evidence about someone’s state of mind. Even “reckless indifference”, which might sound like a more relaxed test, is still a high bar to meet in terms of evidence because it is very subjective.
A side note: Police sometimes do not need to establish intention. For example, in (d) above (administering a stupefying thing for the purpose of facilitating the commission of a crime) it is “immaterial” that the accused did not intend to cause death.
However, by and large the concept of establishing “intent” is a key element for many circumstances.
And it’s here that we find our primary distinguishing feature between murder and manslaughter.
Manslaughter (aka “Not Murder”)
The definition of manslaughter is significantly more straightforward than that of murder. It reads like this:
A person who unlawfully kills another under such circumstances as not to constitute murder is guilty of manslaughter.
So, the charge still requires a person to be deceased, and the cause of their death to be unlawful. However, the Police do not need to establish the more challenging aspects required to make out a murder charge.
More often than not, that missing element is the one of “intent” that we discussed above.
So if the Police can establish that the accused caused someone’s death, and that the act was unlawful (meaning it was not authorised, justified or excused by law) then they would have sufficient grounds to bring a manslaughter charge without also needing to establish the accused’s intentions to cause serious injury or death or their reckless indifference.
Are Penalties Different for Murder or Manslaughter?
This question has two answers: the legal answer and the practical answer.
Both murder and manslaughter technically have maximum penalties of “life imprisonment” (a term which does not necessarily mean spending the rest of your life in prison).
The main difference in sentencing is that someone convicted of murder will be sentenced to life imprisonment, which cannot be reduced.
However, while getting found guilty of manslaughter could theoretically attract the same penalty, the Court has more flexibility in sentencing. The sentence for manslaughter could be reduced having regard to any number of factors that your criminal lawyers will advise the Court about at the relevant time.
There is also no minimum sentence for manslaughter.
So, ultimately the Court will weigh all of the circumstances it is aware of about the accused and the circumstances of the alleged crime to determine what it considers the appropriate penalty to be.
Serious Crimes against the Person
Murder and manslaughter are some of the most serious crimes you can be charged with in Queensland.
It is imperative that you get experienced criminal lawyers to represent you if you are charged, or even if you think something has happened that might lead to you being charged, with such serious crimes.
Get in touch today if you need assistance.