excusable homicide | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Excusable homicide is a term for a killing that, under certain circumstances, is seen as justifiable or understandable and, therefore, not considered a crime.

Life is precious, and the act of intentionally ending a life is generally considered the gravest of crimes. But are all killings morally and legally wrong? This is where the concept of excusable homicide comes into play.

Excusable homicide suggests that there are instances where a killing, while unfortunate, might not warrant punishment. This doesn’t mean that the act of killing becomes desirable. Instead, it acknowledges that under some circumstances, a person may feel they have no other reasonable choice but to protect themselves or others, even if it results in death.

Circumstances Leading to Excusable Homicide

So, what makes a homicide excusable? Let’s dive into the scenarios where this could apply.

Self-Defense or Defense of Others: One of the most common grounds for excusable homicide is self-defense or defending someone else. Picture a scenario where someone breaks into your home and threatens your life. If you end up killing the intruder to save yourself or your family, the law might consider this an excusable homicide.

Killing Under Lawful Authority: Sometimes, people in positions of authority, like police officers or soldiers, may need to use deadly force. If a police officer kills someone who was about to detonate a bomb in a crowded place, the law may view it as an excusable homicide.  Likewise, a public servant who takes a life in the execution of some public duty may be excused.

Heat of Passion: Some jurisdictions also consider killings committed in the heat of passion as an excusable homicide. This term describes situations where someone kills out of an intense emotional state, like anger or fear. The key element here is that the person acts without forethought or intent to kill, typically provoked by a highly stressful or agitating situation.

Variations in Legal Interpretation

Excusable homicide is a legal term, and its interpretation can vary greatly depending on where you are. Different countries, and even different states within the same country, may have distinct laws and definitions regarding what constitutes it.

Some places might have more restrictive interpretations, accepting only self-defense as a valid reason. Others might be more expansive, covering cases of the heat of passion or killings under lawful authority. Therefore, it’s essential to know the specific laws of your jurisdiction if you’re dealing with this issue.

Excusable Homicide vs. Justifiable Homicide

Sometimes you might hear the term “justifiable homicide” used interchangeably with “excusable homicide.” While they seem similar, there can be subtle differences between them, depending on the jurisdiction.

Justifiable homicide usually refers to situations where killing was the only reasonable action, like self-defense against a lethal threat. Excusable homicide, on the other hand, often includes situations where the person who committed the act was under some form of distress or provocation, like in the heat of passion scenarios.

The Role of Excusable Homicide in the Legal System

This concept plays a critical role in the legal system. It acknowledges that not all killings are the result of malice or criminal intent. Sometimes, people are thrust into extraordinary situations where they must make life-or-death decisions in a split second.

By recognizing excusable homicide, the law offers an avenue for those individuals to make their case. It allows them to argue that their actions, while regrettable, were understandable given the circumstances they found themselves in.


To sum up, excusable homicide is a complex and multifaceted concept. It serves as an acknowledgment that not all killings are equal in the eyes of the law. Some, under specific circumstances, may be seen as excusable.

However, the definitions and circumstances surrounding it can greatly vary. As such, it’s always crucial to consult with a legal expert or study the laws of your specific jurisdiction to understand how this concept applies.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/19/2023


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