For those without a background in law enforcement or in the legal profession, the difference between “murder” and “wrongful death” can be hard to distinguish. On this page, we will look at how Arizona law defines these related yet different concepts.
In Phoenix, as well as in the rest of Arizona, “murder” is considered to be a type or form of homicide (the killing of another human being). Unlike some other states, Arizona does not use descriptors such as “voluntary manslaughter,” “involuntary manslaughter,” or “negligent homicide” to describe the general circumstances surrounding a death from anything other than “natural causes.”
In Arizona, murder is the most severe form of homicide and refers to the deliberate, premeditated, taking of a human life or voluntarily participating in a conspiracy to take a human life. Murder can be punished by up to life in prison or even death. Homicide, on the other hand, is the taking of a human life which does not involve premeditation or conspiracy.
Arizona law also recognizes the “Felony Murder Rule” under which a charge of first degree murder can be made if a death occurs during the commission of, or in immediate flight from the scene of, a relatively large number of crimes that are themselves felonies. Under the Felony Murder Rule, the state does not have to prove premeditation, intent, or aggravating circumstances as it must normally do to justify a first-degree enhancement: the mere fact that a death occurred during the commission of a felony crime, or during flight from the scene of a felony crime, is sufficient to subject the guilty party to a prison term of up to life in state prison or even the death penalty if a jury feels it necessary.
Since murder is considered to be a crime against the State of Arizona, a criminal charge of murder can only be made by a grand jury and later prosecuted in court by a representative of the state in the person of a District Attorney or a special prosecutor. However, a murder can be the basis for a civil lawsuit (as in the infamous O.J. Simpson case).
Wrongful death lawsuits usually arise in situations where the victim’s death was the direct result of negligence or carelessness on the part of the liable party. Under Arizona law, a judgement from a civil wrongful death lawsuit does not prohibit the filing of criminal charges relating to the same death. This extends to the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit after a criminal trial and thus criminal guilt or innocence does not preclude filing of a wrongful death action even though the facts in both cases are identical.
As opposed to murder, which is always a crime against the State of Arizona, “wrongful death” is a type of civil dispute that arises between the next of kin or the estate of the victim and those alleged to be responsible for the circumstances which led to the victim’s death. As a civil matter, being found liable for a wrongful death does not place those deemed to be responsible for that death at risk of imprisonment.
Under Arizona’s civil code, a wrongful death lawsuit cannot be filed by just anyone. Wrongful death lawsuits are restricted to either the victim’s next of kin or by the personal representative of the victim’s estate where next of kin is defined as any person who would be legally entitled to a portion of the victim’s estate assuming the victim had died of natural causes and without a valid will. In either case, only one wrongful death lawsuit can be filed and the next of kin or personal representative is considered to be “standing in” for other family members.
In law, both “murder” and “wrongful death” can be used to describe the untimely death of an individual. Murder is the term reserved to describe the willful, deliberate decision by one person to take the life of another and is always considered to be a criminal act that is punishable by confining the guilty party in a state penitentiary. In contrast, Arizona law defines a wrongful death to be a civil cause of action brought about “…by wrongful act, neglect or default…” of another. While any death other than one brought about natural causes can be considered “wrongful,” deaths that are due to the negligence or carelessness of another are not generally prosecuted as a criminal case although a criminal charge of murder can lead to a civil wrongful death lawsuit.