It's actually not as mysterious as it seems. At some point in our history, the court system divided killing into five distinct types. Though in every case the victim is equally dead, the perpetrator is randomly judged on what was going through his mind at the time.
It's definitely not a perfect system, but it's better than the alternatives, and I'm hopeful this strategy will spread to other crimes. Extortion, for example, could be subdivided onto a sliding scale of heinousness that ranges from "I gotta get something to feed the kids today" to "That BMW won't pay for itself." Arson might run the gamut from, "Ohmigod, Billy, you forgot to put the campfire out!" to "Build luxury condos on the mating ground of the Great Western Lizard? Not while I'm alive!"
Here are the various types of murder, in decreasing order of severity.
1. Premeditated Murder
Premeditated murder is the worst kind of killing because the killer put a lot of work into it. He sat around the house, possibly for months at a time, comparing and contrasting the various methods to off somebody. A gun? A knife? Twist ties and a Hi-C bottle? Judges take a particularly dim view of premeditated murder because the killer has a lot of time to see the light. There isn't much of a gray area: your life has clearly taken a wrong turn when you write notes to yourself saying stuff like, "Will Mentos dissolve in Visine? Might not kill but it'd definitely hurt!"
For this reason, premeditated murder is treated the harshest by the judicial system, with those found guilty either sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. If you're a relative of the victim, you should be happy that the killer has been put away forever, because this dude is just plain nuts.
2. Spontaneous Murder
Spontaneous murder isn't as bad as premeditated murder, because it's the result of an idle whim. Something happened that got a dude mad, and he just happened to have a gun or a knife or a dry cleaning bag. This isn't treated quite as harshly as premeditated murder since rather than an inborn evil streak this is just some dude who's made one bad choice. Is it fair? I think so, but I've got eighteen vases full of twirly sticks in my apartment just because they were near the cash registers at Kmart.
Prison sentences generally run ten years and up. If you're a relative of the victim, there's a bit of consolation in knowing that right before the murder the criminal probably thought, "Do I really wanna kill this dude? Oh, what the heck!"
3. Felony Manslaughter
Manslaughter is when you don't intend to kill anybody but you do anyway. It's kind of the "Uh-oh!" of the crime world.
You didn't think a pudgy liquor store clerk would try to outrun somebody carrying fourteen bottles of Hpnotiq. You were just playing a joke, and were pretty sure trains stopped running on these tracks back in 2003. You thought pouring forty ounces of vodka into somebody's mouth was a good way to say, "Hey, we don't let just anybody join our frat!"
Luckily you won't be judged nearly as severely as murderers. It's almost like the judge is thinking, "Dude, it's a bummer that accident had to harshen your buzz."
There's plenty of consolation to survivors in acknowledging that for a minute or two the killer was suffused with regret, perhaps thinking to himself, "What, I killed somebody? Goddammit. Now I better forget about stealing those shoes."
4. Murder by Reason of Insanity
Murder by reason of insanity is totally different from premeditated murder. With premeditated murder, the killer has decided that if strangling an irritating record store clerk means he'll get the electric chair, well, that's the price you gotta pay. An insane person, on the other hand, isn't capable of this kind of rational decision-making.
Though this judgment is often controversial, the distinguishing characteristics really couldn't be clearer. Insane people hear voices in their head telling them to kill random strangers. Sane people would never dream of taking that kind of drastic action unless somebody criticized their dancing or said to their girlfriend, "Yo babe, what's up?"
There isn't much consolation for relatives of the victims, who are left thinking things like, "Well, maybe he isn't going to rot in jail, but he'll have to endure lots of psychotherapy and take drugs that won't let him crap."
5. Misdemeanor Manslaughter
Misdemeanor manslaughter is when you're not doing anything specifically illegal but somebody still winds up dead. This is the rap you want to get, the "Whoops!" of the killing world.
New Yorkers are familiar with misdemeanor manslaughter because this is the sentence municipal workers get when they crush somebody who gets in their way. Say you're driving one of those new articulated buses -- basically two buses attached by an accordion -- and your back half flattens an old lady who was in a crosswalk while the light was green. Dead bodies usually prompt animated harangues and finger-pointing but bus drivers are members of powerful unions and nobody wants to fuck with them. All of a sudden the powers-that-be agree it's okay to flatten people because WTF, buses are huge! Drivers can keep track what's happening around the front, but in the back it's every man for himself.
Or how about those trucks that are a whole bunch of wheeled buckets chained together? The driver's made a valiant attempt at safety: he's hung a metal sign on the tail saying, "You're in my blind spot! Who knows what the fuck I'm gonna do!" The courts agree that this absolves the driver of all responsibility. He didn't mean to hit you: he just couldn't see you, and it would have cost money to truly be safe. A truly wise judicial system realizes that people dying is the price you have to pay to keep condos at the low, low price of $1.3 million rather than, say, $1.4.
Relatives of the victims often find themselves on the horn of an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, it's sad; but on the other, those condos aren't going to build themselves.