Today's Reading

What is murder?

I suspect that everyone thinks they know what murder is, but I also suspect that most people don't, really. Until I started researching this book, I—like you probably—used murder and homicide interchangeably. It turns out that they are not the same thing. Homicide is the act of killing someone under any circumstances. Any time a human kills another person, that's a homicide. Some of those are legal, such as the death penalty in the hundred countries that still have capital punishment laws (wow, that's high). That's a hundred countries in which one person can inject another person with poison or shoot them or hang them by the neck fully intending to kill them with the support of the state. Soldiers killing one another on a battlefield or with a big drone is another form of legal homicide. As a soldier, you can try your hardest to kill as many people as possible and get nothing but medals and complex PTSD in return.

But most forms of homicide are illegal, and there are lots of them. The lowest forms are called involuntary manslaughter in English and US law, and culpable homicide in Scottish law, and a bunch of other things in other places. They are incidents where maybe the perpetrator didn't mean to kill that other person, but still someone died and it was definitely their fault. This is for when parents accidentally leave their babies in hot cars or healthcare workers accidentally give the wrong drug. That kind of thing. Then there's voluntary manslaughter. This is when you meant to hurt the victim but not to kill them. Maybe you meant to punch them in a fight but when they went down they cracked their head and died. Maybe you were provoked and lost control. Maybe there is diminished responsibility because you were really high or in the middle of a psychotic episode.

After all these—and gosh is English law very specific and detailed about these—comes murder. Murder is defined in England and Wales as 'where a person (1) of sound mind (2) unlawfully kills (3) any reasonable creature (4) in being (alive and breathing through its own lungs) (5) under the Queen's Peace (6) with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm'. All six conditions have to be met in order for a homicide to be considered a murder in an English court. In Scotland, simply intent and 'wicked recklessness' are required. In American federal law, murder is 'the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought'. I bet you never knew that murder laws had such lovely turns of phrase.

Americans like to complicate this further by separating murder into first and second degrees, and then adding extra complications by letting each state decide what constitutes first- and second-degree murder. Generally, first-degree murder is intentional murder that has been premeditated or planned, while second-degree murder is intentional but unplanned. So, if I go out and buy a gun and then go to someone's house and shoot them, that's first-degree murder. If I am Ted Bundy and I am pretending that I hurt my arm so a woman will help me lift my canoe up so I can beat her to death with a hammer while she's not looking, that's first-degree murder. I planned that. However, if I am arguing with someone and then I pull out my gun in the middle of the fight and shoot them, that's second-degree murder. Some states also have third-degree murder, which covers all forms of manslaughter. In New York State, first-degree murder only refers to the murder of police officers, multiple murders, murders involving torture or being a paid assassin (!). So if I buy a gun and drive to someone's house and kill them in Glenville, NY, that's second-degree murder unless I am being paid or they are a cop. But, if I did that same thing in Pottsville, PA, that would be first-degree murder. If I did it in Lancing, UK, it would just be murder. Furthermore, I'd be liable for the death penalty in Pennsylvania, but not in New York because only capital (first-degree) federal murders are death penalty murders in New York State. Which means, in Pennsylvania, a second homicide could occur as a result of the murder, this time in a nice state-sanctioned cell.

What I'm getting at here is that murder is a constructed act. The only black-and-white part of a murder is the bit where one person killed another, and that's actually the homicide bit. Homicide is clear cut, but murder is a label we apply to some forms of homicide, and that label changes over time and across space. What is clearly murder in one state is manslaughter in another; what is legal homicide to one person is obviously murder to another. Murder is the interpretation of an event, interpreted by individual people, which makes murder an emotive label, no matter how much legalese it is couched in. It is not a binary category. It is not a single or simple descriptor. Murder is complicated.

During the writing of this book, I had one quote above my desk, from the sociologist Douglas Black: 'Right and wrong is not absolute or relative: it is geometrical.' This is why I have used a very comprehensive definition of 'murder' to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.

And I want you to keep all that in mind as we leap into the world of Roman homicide.

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