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Homicide: Legal Aspects - Penalties

imprisonment maximum capital minimum

The decision of the Supreme Court in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977) raised considerable doubt as to whether capital punishment is constitutionally permitted for any crime other than homicide. Those jurisdictions that retain capital punishment always include among capital crimes a category of murder, which may be narrowly restricted. The Supreme Court has indicated that, except perhaps in very special circumstances, the Constitution prohibits mandatory imposition of the death sentence. The decision whether to impose sentence of death is made by the judge and/or jury, pursuant to various statutory procedures that generally provide for full consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors.

Whether or not capital punishment is retained, murder is always regarded as one of the most serious offenses, for which (or for the most serious category of which) the law's maximum penalty can be imposed. Most jurisdictions authorize a sentence for murder ranging up to life imprisonment, and a minimum sentence of imprisonment for a substantial number of years, commonly as many as ten or twenty. For the most serious category of murder, some jurisdictions provide a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Penalties for manslaughter vary widely. The maximum penalty may be as high as ten or twenty years' imprisonment, and the minimum as little as one or two. If involuntary manslaughter is treated separately, the maximum penalty is less—usually not more than five years' imprisonment. The penalty for negligent homicide or vehicular homicide usually does not exceed three years' imprisonment.

The sentencing provisions of the Model Penal Code are representative of this general pattern. Murder, a felony of the first degree (§ 210.2(2)), is punishable (capital punishment aside) by imprisonment for a minimum of not less than one nor more than ten years and for a maximum of life. Manslaughter, a felony of the second degree (§ 210.3(2)), is punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of not less than one nor more than three years and for a maximum of ten years. Negligent homicide, a felony of the third degree (§ 210.4(2)), is punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of not less than one nor more than two years and for a maximum of five years.

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