Culpable Homicide and Murder
By Siddharth Sengupta
Introduction The difference between culpable Homicide and murder (or culpable homicide amounting to murder, to be precise) is one of the more confusing aspects in criminal law, not only for law aspirants, but also for law students and practising lawyers. The line separating them is so thin that a case may end up as either of these two purely because of the interpretation of the judge or the context of the act. In this article, I attempt to help the reader identify that thin line and the consequences of the case being on either side of the line
Definitions Under the IPC
“Culpable homicide.—Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.”- Section 299 of the IPC
“Murder.—Except in the cases hereinafter excepted, culpable homicide is murder, if the act by which the death is caused is done with the intention of causing death, or—
(Secondly) —If it is done with the intention of causing such bodily injury as the offender knows to be likely to cause the death of the person to whom the harm is caused, or—
(Thirdly) —If it is done with the intention of causing bodily injury to any person and the bodily injury intended to be inflicted is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, or—
(Fourthly) —If the person committing the act knows that it is so imminently dangerous that it must, in all probability, cause death or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, and commits such act without any excuse for incurring the risk of causing death or such injury as aforesaid.”- Section 300 of the IPC
Upon reading it for the first time, there appears to be hardly any difference between the two definitions. Maybe the third and the fourth points in the definition of ‘murder’ give us some idea, but it certainly isn’t enough, and makes us wonder why even bother to make two sections for more-or-less the same crime?
Explanation and Illustrations
While both crimes definitely require intention or mens rea, the execution or the actus reus has major differences. These differences have been explained much more convincingly by court rulings than by the IPC. While culpable homicide requires just intentional killing of a human being, murder requires the killing to be either pre-meditated/planned or to be so serious that it would pretty much guarantee death. The probability of death in ordinary conditions is much higher in cases of murder than in culpable homicide. Also, knowledge about any pre-existing serious injuries of the victim plays an important role, as the presence of such knowledge will convert a culpable homicide into a murder.
Let’s take a look at a few illustrations:
- If A stabs B in his thigh and cuts through an artery as a result, causing B to bleed out and die, A will be liable for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. But instead of B’s thigh, if A stabs him in his throat and B dies by bleeding out, A will be liable for murder. Explanation– While stabbing someone in his thigh is likely to cause him to bleed out, as it happened in this illustration, the death is in no way guaranteed or highly likely. On the other hand, stabbing someone in his neck will almost always kill him. Death here is pretty much certain.
- Let’s say P and Q are out hunting where they are not in constant contact with each other. While looking for a prey, P hears a tall bush rustling. He looks at the bush and thinks that its a small animal and shoots into the bush. It turns out that he has shot Q in the heart and who now has died because of the gunshot. Here, P will be liable for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, even though shooting someone in the head will almost always cause death, as P had no idea that it was Q who was behind the bush.
- A and B’s wife, C are in an extra-marital affair. B comes to know of this and after a week of planning, he goes to A’s house and stabs him in the chest and kills him. Now, shooting someone in the chest may or may not kill him, depending upon exactly which organ was damaged. But the fact that B killed A after planning for a long time makes this a case of murder.
- Lets say X and Y have been bitter business rivals for two years. They often get into fisticuffs and have to be separated. Y knows that X has a very serious peanut allergy. One day, after another fight, Y mixes peanut butter in X’s lunch to teach him a lesson. Consuming his food, X dies due to a reaction. Here, Y will be liable for murder even though a normal, healthy person has almost zero chance of dying by eating peanuts. This is because of the fact that Y had prior knowledge of X’s serious condition. Y was aware that X has a high likelihood of dying if he is fed peanuts.
Exceptions to Murder
Section 300 also talks about a few exceptions to murder. These situations, if we had gone by just the definition, would have certainly fallen under murder. They are:
- “Culpable homicide is not murder if the offender, whilst deprived of the power of self-control by grave and sudden provocation, causes the death of the person who gave the provocation or causes the death of any other person by mistake or accident. The above exception is subject to the following provisions:—
(First) —That the provocation is not sought or voluntarily provoked by the offender as an excuse for killing or doing harm to any person.
(Secondly) —That the provocation is not given by anything done in obedience to the law, or by a public servant in the lawful exercise of the powers of such public servant. (Thirdly) —That the provocation is not given by anything done in the lawful exercise of the right of private defence. Explanation.—Whether the provocation was grave and sudden enough to prevent the offence from amounting to murder is a question of fact.
The best example for this exception would be the case of K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra [1962 AIR 605]:
In this case Nanavati, a naval officer, came to know that his wife was having an extramarital affair while he was deployed. He got enraged, went to his locker, grabbed his gun, went to the house of the man his wife was having an affair with, and shot him dead. It was held that this was not a case of sudden and grave provocation as there was a significant time gap between Nanavati coming to know of the affair and him shooting his wife’s lover. Had the time gap been small, this would fall under sudden and grave provocation and would amount to culpable homice under Section 299 of the IPC.
- “Culpable homicide is not murder if the offender, in the exercise in good faith of the right of private defence of person or property, exceeds the power given to him by law and causes the death of the person against whom he is exercising such right of defence without premeditation, and without any intention of doing more harm than is necessary for the purpose of such defence.”
For example, if a man tries to rape a woman and the woman stabs him in the heart to stop him, she won’t be liable for murder. But in a different scenario, if a man tries to steal a woman’s jewellery and the woman catches him and stabs him in the heart and he dies, she can be held liable for murder. This is because in the first scenario, the defence is proportional to the attack against her. In the second scenario, on the other hand, the act done in defence is significantly disproportional to the act against which such defence was exercised.
- Culpable homicide is not murder if the offender, being a public servant or aiding a public servant acting for the advancement of public justice, exceeds the powers given to him by law, and causes death by doing an act which he, in good faith, believes to be lawful and necessary for the due discharge of his duty as such public servant and without ill-will towards the person whose death is caused.
For example, in a case of encounter killing which falls outside the purview of NHRC guidelines, the policeman will be prosecuted under Section 299 of the IPC and not Section 300, even if all the elements of murder are present.
- Culpable homicide is not murder if it is committed without premeditation in a sudden fight in the heat of passion upon a sudden quarrel and without the offender having taken undue advantage or acted in a cruel or unusual manner. It is immaterial in such cases which party offers the provocation or commits the first assault.
For example, lets say P, a businessman, comes to know that his business partner M had been stealing money from their company and confronts him. They get into a heated argument which quickly turned physical. During this heated fight, when P and M are punching each other, P picks up a metal vase and hits M in his head. M bleeds out and dies. In this case, P will not be liable for murder as it was in the heat of passion upon a sudden quarrel that M was killed by P. He also did not have any undue advantage or did prior planning.
- Culpable homicide is not murder when the person whose death is caused, being above the age of eighteen years, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent.
For example, if an adult male requests his wife to kill him as he is suffering from depression and his wife does end up poisoning and killing him, she would not be liable for murder.
Punishments for Culpable Homicide and Murder
Punishment for Culpable Homicide
Section 304 in The Indian Penal Code: “Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.—Whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine, if the act by which the death is caused is done with the intention of causing death, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both, if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any intention to cause death, or to cause such bodily injury as is likely to cause death.”
Punishment for Murder
Section 302 in The Indian Penal Code: “Punishment for murder.—Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Repeat offenders or particularly ruthless murderers are generally given death sentences.
As generally in practise, the maximum punishment given for culpable homicide is ten years imprisonment plus fine, it is quite a feat if a defence lawyer is able to help his client escape murder charges even if he still gets convicted under ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder.’ As ultimately, 10 years imprisonment is much better for the convicted than death penalty or life imprisonment, the line between the two crimes, even if blurry, is very crucial in an actual trial.
A case falls under either of these two categories depending on intention, planning and knowledge. Both, the facts of the case and the judge’s interpretation of the differences between the offences play crucial roles. Much of this depends on individual morality and biases of the judges also. Precedents and guidelines by the higher judiciary, thankfully, have been very helpful in whatever uniformity there is in the interpretation by different judges. When we look at the punishments for the two crimes, we truly begin to appreciate why it is so important to have a crystal clear idea about their differences, even for a layman.
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