What’s the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter in SC?

Getting arrested for murder in South Carolina often means the end of life as you know it. You may beat the charge, or you may be convicted of a lesser offense, but one thing is certain – your life will never be the same again.

There are times when circumstances call for violence, and, for some people, there may not be any other way out of a bad situation. Anyone could become involved in a violent situation at some point in their lives.

Whether you are facing homicide charges or just educating yourself on self-defense law, knowledge about what murder is, what other criminal charges can result from killing a person, and when the use of deadly force is legally justified could make the difference between a lifetime in prison, a substantially reduced sentence, a dismissal, an acquittal, or avoiding an arrest completely.

How is Murder (Homicide) Defined in South Carolina?

Murder is an unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought.

For most crimes in South Carolina, the prosecutor must prove a “general criminal intent” as an element of the offense – if you did not intend to commit the crime, you should not be convicted or punished (there are some exceptions, like speeding tickets or statutory rape).

Murder requires a “specific intent,” which is malice aforethought. Malice aforethought can be proven in several ways – it could mean:

  • An intent to kill;
  • An intent to cause serious harm (that then resulted in death instead);
  • A “reckless indifference to the value of human life;” or
  • The intent to commit a felony (when the death occurs during the commission of a felony, you can be charged with “felony murder” whether you intended for someone to die or not).

If the intent of “malice aforethought” cannot be proven, a person can still be found guilty of the “lesser included offenses” of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

What is Manslaughter in South Carolina?

Voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are both “lesser included offenses” of homicide in SC, but there are differences in the proof required and the potential sentences for each type of manslaughter.

In either case, manslaughter is an unlawful killing of another person without malice aforethought.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Most people are familiar with voluntary manslaughter – it’s the stereotypical scenario of the husband coming home, finding his wife in bed with the neighbor, and opening fire on them while in a rage.

It still requires proof of an intent to kill but has additional elements. For the prosecutor to convict a person of voluntary manslaughter, or for the jury to have the option of voluntary manslaughter in a murder trial, there must be evidence that the killing happened 1) “in the heat of passion” and 2) “upon sufficient legal provocation.”

The “heat of passion” could mean that you are in a rage and that you have not had time to reflect and calm down before you commit the fatal act. Sufficient legal provocation means that you were provoked – you were attacked in some way or the alleged victim did something to you that provoked the rage.

A voluntary manslaughter conviction is obviously better than a murder conviction, but it can still end your life as you know it – it carries a potential sentence of 30 years in prison.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter does not require proof of an intent to kill. “Criminal negligence” is enough to convict a person of involuntary manslaughter, and it carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

What is a Justifiable Homicide?

“Justifiable homicide” means that the killing was lawful. There are several defenses to murder charges that result in a complete acquittal instead of a reduction to manslaughter (or not being charged in the first place). Let’s look at a few of the more common murder defenses in South Carolina:


Once self-defense has been raised at trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to disprove self-defense beyond any reasonable doubt. The SC Supreme Court listed five elements of self-defense in State v. Wiggins in 1998:

The person was without fault in bringing on the difficulty;

The person actually believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury, or he actually was in such imminent danger;

A reasonable, prudent person would have entertained the same belief;

The circumstances were such as would warrant a person of ordinary prudence, firmness, and courage to strike the fatal blow in order to save himself from serious bodily harm; and

The person had no other probable means of avoiding the danger of losing his own life or sustaining serious bodily injury than to act as he did in this particular instance.

Once evidence has been introduced that establishes these elements, the court will give a jury instruction telling the jurors that they can find the defendant not guilty if they agree that he or she acted in self-defense.

Defense of Others

Defense of others is basically self-defense, but you are defending another person instead of yourself.

In State v. Otts, decided last week by the SC Court of Appeals, the Court said that, if a third party has the right to defend themselves and the elements of self-defense are present, then you also have the right to step in and defend them.

Stand Your Ground in SC

In South Carolina, like many other states, you do not have a duty to retreat if someone attacks you.

South Carolina’s “Stand Your Ground” law says that if someone is trying to enter your home or vehicle, trying to remove you from your home or vehicle, or attacks you in any place that you have a right to be, you can defend yourself even if it means using deadly force.

The law, called the “Defense of Person and Property Act,” provides for immunity from prosecution. In practice, this means you are entitled to a pretrial hearing where the Court will decide whether your case should be dismissed, but, if the Court rules against you, you cannot appeal the decision until after you are convicted at trial


In legal terms, accident means a lack of criminal intent or criminal negligence. If you did not intend to hurt or kill someone, and if your conduct was not so reckless that it rises to the level of involuntary manslaughter, you are not guilty of murder.

He Needed Killin’

Okay, this one’s not a “legal” defense, and I understand it may be offensive for some people. But…

Jurors tend to decide cases based on their gut feelings and not based on hyper-technical definitions of malice aforethought, intent to kill, or criminal negligence. It’s half-joke among defense lawyers and half-truth, but “he needed killin’” is a valid, unstated defense for many jurors in many areas of the state…

Charleston, SC Criminal Defense Lawyer

Charleston criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone has years of experience defending complex murder cases in South Carolina. If you are facing murder charges, or just have questions about how we defend homicide cases, call now at (843) 808-2100 or message us through our website to talk to an attorney today.