Manslaughter & Murder – What’s the Difference?

April 07, 2021

On March 31, 2021, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an opinion authored by Justice Chutich regarding third-degree murder. The Court held that, “a person commits an eminently dangerous act . . . without regard to human life, when based on the surrounding circumstances one can infer that the defendant was indifferent to the loss of life that the defendant’s eminently dangerous act could cause.” State v. Coleman, A19-0708 (Minn. March 31, 2021).  The Court further opined that a defendant is guilty of third-degree murder when the following elements are met: 

(1)       Defendant causes the death of another without intent; 

(2)       by committing an act eminently dangerous to others, that is, an act that is highly likely to cause death; and 

(3)       the nature of the act supports an inference that the defendant was indifferent to the loss of life that this eminently dangerous activity could cause. 

This opinion originated from a case out of Chisago County, Minnesota. Defendant, Eric Coleman, was charged with, amongst other things, third-degree depraved mind murder in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.195(a) (2020). Coleman was driving his snowmobile with a blood alcohol level of approximately .16. While driving his snowmobile he hit several people in and around an ice shack on the lake. One of the individuals he struck ultimately died due to injuries sustained. During Coleman’s trial, the district court judge instructed the jury on the standard to apply in determining Coleman’s guilt. The instruction included that Coleman only have acted with the knowledge that someone may be killed. Coleman was ultimately convicted by the jury. 

On appeal, Coleman argued that the above jury instruction incorrectly defined what reckless was in determining whether Coleman was guilty of third-degree murder. In particular, Coleman argued that a person acts recklessly when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the element of the offense exists or will result from the conduct. The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court, finding the mental state required for third-degree, depraved heart murder is equivalent to a reckless standard.  Both parties petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court for review on different grounds and both petitions were granted.  

The holding outlined above, “draws an important distinction between third-degree depraved mind murder and second-degree culpable negligence manslaughter.” Id. at 8. Second-degree culpable negligence manslaughter occurs when a person causes the death of another . . . by the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another. Third-degree depraved mind murder occurs when a person commits an eminently dangerous act that supports an inference that the defendant was indifferent to the loss of life that the defendant’s eminently dangerous activity could cause. So- what is the difference? 

The difference between third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter is when the act is performed under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. Extreme indifference to human life will provide for facts supporting third-degree murder. Negligence will result in facts supporting the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. The difference in the facts that give rise to a third-degree murder charge is what the respective individual’s mental state is. The facts must show that the defendant acted with indifference to the potential loss of life their eminently dangerous act could cause. 

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