In Colorado, there are five primary categories of homicide crimes. These are (from most serious to least serious):
- First-degree murder (18-3-102 C.R.S.): Premeditated or knowing killings.
- Second-degree murder (18-3-103 C.R.S.): Unintended deaths caused by extremely dangerous behavior, or felony murder.
- Vehicular homicide (18-3-106 C.R.S.): Fatal car accidents caused by DUI or reckless driving (18-3-102 C.R.S.)
- Manslaughter (18-3-104 C.R.S.): Unintended deaths caused by reckless behavior.
- Criminally negligent homicide (18-3-105 C.R.S.): Unintended deaths caused by careless behavior.
Homicide punishments depend on the defendant’s state of mind. The more intentional the killing, the harsher the sentence:
Colorado State Prison sentence
|2nd-degree murder||16 to 48 years|
|Vehicular homicide||2 to 14 years|
|Manslaughter||2 to 6 years|
|Criminally negligent homicide||1 to 3 years|
Homicide charges seem very daunting. But there are several potential defenses to fight the case. Common defenses include:
- The defendant acted in self-defense,
- The defendant is the victim of false accusations, or
- The police committed misconduct
Below our Denver Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss:
- 1. What is first-degree murder?
- 2. What is second-degree murder?
- 3. What is vehicular homicide?
- 4. What is manslaughter?
- 5. What is criminally negligent homicide?
- 6. What are the most common defenses to murder?
- 7. What civil remedies do victims’ families have?
- 8. How many years do you get for murder in Colorado?
1. What is first-degree murder?
First-degree murder under 18-3-102 C.R.S. comprises five different scenarios:
- The deliberate and premeditated killing of another person.
- Killing by acting with extreme indifference to the value of human life. An example is Russian Roulette.
- Perjury that causes an innocent person to be convicted and executed.
- Knowingly causing the death of a child under 12. And the perpetrator was in a position of trust with the child.
- Selling or distributing drugs to children under 18 on school grounds. And this causes the child’s death.
First-degree murder is a class 1 felony. The punishment is life in prison.
There is no possibility of parole if the victim is an officer or other first responder. See our article on first-degree murder of a peace officer, firefighter, or emergency medical service provider (18-3-107 C.R.S.).1
Also, see our article on attempted murder.
2. What is second-degree murder?
Second-degree murder under 18-3-103 C.R.S. is knowingly causing another’s death. The defendant may not have planned for the victim to die. But the defendant knew that death would likely result.
Example: Henry is an abusive boyfriend. His beatings have put his girlfriend in a coma before. After the latest beating, Henry leaves her unconscious. She soon dies.
This is 2nd-degree murder. His deliberate actions were practically certain to be fatal. He did not premeditate for her to die. But he did knowingly cause her death.
Second-degree murder is typically a class 2 felony. The sentence in Colorado is:
- 16 – 48 years in prison (with 5 years parole), and
- $3,000 – $1,000,000 in fines
Courts can lower the charge to a class 3 felony. This occurs when the defendant kills in the heat of passion. An example is walking in on a cheating spouse and immediately killing them in a fit of rage.
The reduced sentence for a “heat of passion” killing is:
- 10 – 32 years in prison (with 5 years parole), and
- $3,000 – $75,000 in fines2
2.1 What is felony murder?
Felony murder is a type of second-degree murder in Colorado. Felony murder occurs when someone dies during the perpetration of either:
- Arson (18-4-102 – 105 C.R.S.),
- Robbery (18-4-301 – 303 C.R.S.),
- Burglary (18-4-202 – 204 C.R.S.),
- Kidnapping (18-3-301 – 302 C.R.S.),
- Sexual assault (18-3-402 C.R.S.), or
- Sexual assault on a child (18-3-405 C.R.S.)
Therefore, people are criminally liable for 2nd-degree murder if someone dies while they are committing – or attempting to commit – one of the above felonies. It does not matter if they had no intention for anyone to die.
The penalties for felony murder include 4 to 48 years in prison (with 5 years parole) and $3,000 – $1,000,000 in fines.3
3. What is vehicular homicide?
Vehicular homicide under 18-3-106 C.R.S. is a fatal car accident in Colorado caused by:
- Reckless driving, or
- Drunk or drugged driving
Vehicular homicide resulting from reckless driving is a class 4 felony. The sentence is:
- 2 – 6 years in prison (with 3 years parole), and/or
- $2,000 – $500,000 in fines
Vehicular homicide resulting from DUI is a class 3 felony. The sentence is:
- 4 – 12 years in prison (with 5 years parole), and/or
- $3,000 – $750,000 in fines4
4. What is manslaughter?
Manslaughter under 18-3-104 C.R.S. is recklessly causing another’s death. Unlike murder, there is no knowing intention to kill.
Example: Jack carries a loaded gun. Jack gets into an argument with a neighbor. To scare him, Jack takes out his gun. But it goes off by accident, killing the neighbor. Jack did not knowingly cause his death. Therefore, it is not murder. But his reckless actions resulted in death. So the D.A. charges him with manslaughter.
Colorado law has a second definition of manslaughter: Intentionally causing or aiding another person to commit suicide.
Manslaughter is a class 4 felony. The sentence is:
- 2 – 6 years in prison (with 3 years parole), and
- $2,000 – $500,000 in fines5
5. What is criminally negligent homicide?
Criminally negligent homicide under 18-3-105 C.R.S. is causing another person’s death by criminal negligence.
Criminal negligence is careless behavior. Colorado’s legal term for this is “gross deviation from the reasonable standard of care.”
Example: Mary owns a jewelry shop where she pierces ears. One time she forgets to sterilize her needles. Then the customer gets an infection and dies. Not sterilizing the needles is clearly negligent. So she would probably face charges for criminally negligent homicide.
Criminal negligence is less blameworthy than recklessness. Had Mary knowingly used a dirty needle, she would probably face manslaughter charges instead.
Criminally negligent homicide is a class 5 felony. The punishment is:
- 1 – 3 years in prison (with 2 years parole), and
- $1,000 – $100,000 in fines6
6. What are the most common defenses to murder?
Depending on the facts, murder defenses may include:
- The defendant killed in lawful self-defense or defense of others (“justifiable homicide”).
- The defendant is a victim of mistaken identity.
- The defendant was falsely accused.
- The death was a blameless accident or the victim’s fault.
- The police officer’s misconduct prevents the defendant from having a fair trial (such as planting evidence, tampering with evidence, or coercing a confession).
- The defendant’s actions were not premeditated – this “partial defense” could get 1st-degree murder knocked down to 2nd-degree.
- The defendant did not act knowingly – this “partial defense” could get 2nd-degree murder lessened to manslaughter.
It is a defense to charges of second-degree murder (including felony murder) if the defendant:
- was not the only participant in the underlying crime; and
- did not commit the homicidal act or in any way solicit, request, command, importune, cause, or aid the commission thereof; and
- was not armed with a deadly weapon; and
- did not engage himself or herself in – or intend to engage in – and had no reasonable ground to believe that any other participant intended to engage in conduct likely to result in death or serious bodily injury.7
Murder is rarely captured on film. Therefore, the district attorney often relies on circumstantial evidence to piece together what happened. Forensic and accident reconstruction experts can shed light on what really happened. If the defense attorney can raise a reasonable doubt, charges should not be sustained.
7. What civil remedies do victims’ families have?
Families of homicide victims (“decedents”) may have grounds to sue for:
Potential defendants include not only the alleged killer. They also include anyone else who may share responsibility. For instance, the property owner where the homicide took place could be liable for not providing proper security.
In the lawsuit, victims’ families would fight for compensatory damages. This is money to cover their:
- Pain and suffering,
- Grief and sorrow,
- Medical expenses,
- Loss of the decedent’s earnings, services, insurance, and/or retirement benefits,
- Any property damage that occurred, and/or
- Funeral expenses
Should the case reach trial, victims’ families can also ask for punitive damages. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant. And the amount can be much larger than compensatory damages.
8. How many years do you get for murder in Colorado?
First-degree murder carries life in Colorado State Prison. And second-degree murder is punishable by four to 48 years in prison (though “heat of passion” killings carry a maximum 32-year sentence).
Meanwhile, manslaughter carries two-to-six years in prison. And criminally negligent homicide is punished by one-to-three years in prison.
Finally, vehicular homicide from reckless driving carries two-to-six years in prison. And vehicular homicide from DUI carries four-to-12 years in prison.8
Laws in Other States
Arrested in California? See our article on Colorado murder laws (187 PC).
Arrested in Nevada? See our article on Nevada murder laws (NRS 200.030).
- CRS 18-3-102. See, for example, Colorado husband accused of killing wife appears in court, Associated Press (August 9, 2021)(re. first-degree murder defendant Barry Morphew accused of killing wife Suzanne Morphew according to the Chaffee County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office). See also People v. Miller (2005) .
- CRS 18-3-103. See also People v. Tardif, 2017 COA 136, 433 P.3d 60; People v. Auman (2005) .
- CRS 18-3-103(1)(b). Senate Bill 17-094. See also Doubleday v. People (2016) 364 P.3d 193.
- CRS 18-3-106. See also People v. Barry, 2015 COA 4, 349 P.3d 1139; Frazier v. People (2004) .
- CRS 18-3-104. See also United States v. Armijo, (10th Cir. 2011). 651 F.3d 1226; People v. Griego (2018) 409 P.3d 338.
- CRS 18-3-105. See also People v. Vickers, (Colo. App. 2007) 168 P.3d 9; People v. Raider (2022) 516 P.3d 911.
- CRS 18-3-103(1.5) (“affirmative defense”).
- See notes 1-7.