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Letter: No, Rob Port, homicide does not mean murder

William Smith of Fargo writes, "The word 'homicide' simply means 'to kill a man.' Because there are a variety of reasons one person might kill another, the law separates these categories."

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Our small corner of the country garnered some unfortunate national attention because a 41-year-old man killed a teenager after a political dispute. There are so many unknowns it would be irresponsible to comment more on it; that’s not what this letter is about. Political commentator Jack Posobiec correctly pointed out that this man has not been charged with murder. Rob Port objects and says he was charged with vehicular homicide, then gives a sarcastic quip about the “Law & Order” TV show to say homicide and murder are the same thing.

That's not true.

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The word “homicide” simply means “to kill a man.” Because there are a variety of reasons one person might kill another, the law separates these categories. Murder is a very specific subset of homicides; it is usually separated into degrees:

First degree murder is when one person intentionally and knowingly causes the death of another human being. For example, a man knows his wife is cheating on him, so he stalks her lover and shoots him in the back as he’s walking home. It is a class AA felony, the most serious offense in North Dakota law.

Second degree murder is a bit different. It also involves intentionally and knowingly causing the death of another, but in this case under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance. For example, a man comes home from work early one day and catches his wife in bed with another man. In a fit of rage, he grabs his gun from the dresser and shoots the man as he’s still lying in bed. It is class A felony, a lesser charge compared to first degree.

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Manslaughter, which is not murder, is recklessly causing the death of another.

Negligent homicide means negligently causing the death of another.

What is the difference between recklessness and negligence? Recklessness means knowing about a risk and consciously disregarding that risk. Negligence means not knowing about a risk that an ordinary person would have known about.

For example, a man gets into an altercation with someone, pulls out a gun and shoots him in the leg. He didn’t mean to kill him; he just wanted to hurt him a little. Unfortunately, the bullet punctured the man’s femoral artery so he bled out and died. Shooting people risks causing death; everybody knows that. This is recklessness; manslaughter is a class B felony.

An example of negligence would be during a July 4th celebration when everyone is setting off fireworks, a man pulls out a gun and fires into the air; the bullet comes down a mile away and kills somebody. His only excuse is, “Bullets come back down? I thought they went into space!” Some people are genuine idiots. As a general rule, negligence cannot be the basis for a criminal charge. However, an exception is made when someone’s idiocy gets someone else killed. This is a class C felony.

There are other categories of homicide as well, such as justified self-defense, assisted suicide, robberies gone bad, etc. In all cases, the differentiating factor is what were the people doing and what was the intent of the killer.

Incidentally, “Criminal Intent” is one of the several spinoff series of “Law & Order.”

There is a concerning national trend of prosecutors not charging killers with murder, but instead with some variation of manslaughter because intent is actually hard to prove in court. Prosecutors care more about getting a conviction and efficiently moving people through the system than they do about justice. The downside of this laziness is that killers will get out of prison earlier than they should, and the charge does not reflect what they actually did.

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This brings us back around to our unfortunate case of vehicular homicide. It is still a very serious charge, a class A felony, equivalent to second degree murder, but it is not murder. Prosecutors do not have to demonstrate in court that this man intended to kill a teenager over a political disagreement. The only factors they have to show are that he was drunk and it was him who caused the death. According to the news article, police already have that information.

An additional factor is a vehicular homicide charge comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for a first offense, or a minimum of 10 years if they already have a DUI on their record, which this man does. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison.

The reason this man is being charged this way is likely because it’s an open and shut case for prosecutors and with severe penalties, but it is still not a murder charge. Does that still count as justice?

William Smith lives in Fargo.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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