Local Attorney Explains “Murder” vs. “Homicide” Differences

Roanoke Attorney Nick Hagen explains how, even though many believe the terms “murder” and “homicide” are identical, they are actually different. He sheds light on stories here and here about record-high homicide rates in Roanoke City.

So I think what’s happening here is a difference in definitions, one which the city is using to confound the issue. “Homicide” and “murder” are legally distinct. All definitions of murder in Virginia law require a “willful, deliberate and premeditated killing” of another human being. Homicide is the killing of another human being. The homicide rate should always include the murder rate and the murder rate would logically always be at least equal to or less than the homicide rate.

For an analogy: all squares (murders) are rectangles (homicides) but not all rectangles are squares.

Add to the fact that the city is using terms like “incidents” instead of “victims” and you get the issues with numbers that you see. Also you have members of council who are not attorneys and may not be aware of the distinction between “homicide” and “murder” given how much our culture uses them interchangeably (prior to becoming an attorney, I was unaware of the distinction). Logically the numbers should look something like this:

Homicide victims >= homicide incidents
Murder victims >= murder incidents
Homicide victims >= murder victims
Homicide incidents >= murder incidents

There are also two other types of murder: first and second degree murder. Second degree murder is essentially a catch-all for any murder which is not aggravated murder or first degree murder. Sometimes the law has these types of crimes to serve as offenses if an alleged crime does not fully meet the definition of an offense. Virginia is not as clear as some states, but typically second degree murder cases may involve things like extreme recklessness or an extreme disregard for human life.

First degree murder (or the felony murder rule) is where the death occurs during the commission or attempted commission of certain felonies. In Virginia these felonies are: arson, rape, forcible sodomy, inanimate or animate object sexual penetration, robbery, burglary or abduction. First degree murder also includes murders which are done in a way which takes a bit of time to complete (e.g. poisoning, lying in wait, starvation etc.).

– Nick Hagen is a local attorney and 2022 Republican candidate for Roanoke City Council

Updated 2-25-24

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