Colorado Murder and Homicide Laws


Colorado has five main homicide crimes. They are (from most serious to least serious):

  1. First-degree murder (18-3-102 C.R.S.): Premeditated or knowing killings.
  2. Second-degree murder (18-3-103 C.R.S.): Unintended deaths caused by extremely dangerous behavior.
  3. Vehicular homicide (18-3-106 C.R.S.): Fatal car accidents caused by DUI or reckless driving (18-3-102 C.R.S.)
  4. Manslaughter (18-3-104 C.R.S.): Unintended deaths caused by reckless behavior.
  5. 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:

 Homicide crime

Colorado State Prison sentence

1st-degree murder


2nd-degree murder

4 to 48 years

Vehicular homicide

2 to 14 years


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 ones include:

  • The defendant acted in self-defense,
  • The defendant is the victim of false accusations, or
  • The police committed misconduct

Below our Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss:

There are several possible defenses to Colorado homicide charges.

1. What is first-degree murder?

First-degree murder under 18-3-102 C.R.S. comprises six different scenarios:

  1. Deliberate and premeditated killing of another person.
  2. Killing by acting with extreme indifference to the value of human life. An example is Russian Roulette.
  3. Perjury that causes an innocent person to be convicted and executed.
  4. Knowingly causing the death of a child under 12. And the perpetrator was in a position of trust with the child.
  5. Selling or distributing drugs to children under 18 on school grounds. And this causes the child's death.
  6. Felony murder: This is when someone dies during the perpetration of either:
    1. Arson (18-4-102 - 105 C.R.S.),
    2. Robbery (18-4-301 - 303 C.R.S.),
    3. Burglary (18-4-202 - 204 C.R.S.),
    4. Kidnapping (18-3-301 - 302 C.R.S.),
    5. Sexual assault (18-3-402 C.R.S.), or
    6. Sexual assault on a child (18-3-405 C.R.S.)

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.).

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:

  • 4 - 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 killed 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:

  • 4 - 16 years in prison (with 5 years parole), and
  • $3,000 - $75,000 in fines

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 fines

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 fines

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 fines

6. What are common homicide defenses?

The most effective way to fight homicide charges depends on the evidence. Depending on the facts, homicide defenses may include:

  1. The defendant killed in lawful self-defense of him/herself or others. Homicide can be justifiable in Colorado where one's life is in immediate danger.
  2. The defendant is a victim of mistaken identity. Perhaps the defendant resembles the real killer.
  3. The defendant was falsely accused. Perhaps the accuser has motives to lie.
  4. The death was an accident or the victim's fault. Forensic and accident reconstruction experts can shed light on what really happened.
  5. The police's misconduct prevent the defendant from having a fair trial. Examples of misconduct are planting evidence or coercing a confession.

There are also partial defenses that could get charges reduced:

  • The defendant's actions were not premeditated. This could get 1st-degree murder knocked down to 2nd-degree.
  • The defendant did not act knowingly. This could get a 2nd-degree murder lessened to manslaughter.
  • The defendant did not behave recklessly. This could get manslaughter reduced to negligent homicide.

Murder is rarely captured on film. Therefore, the state often relies on circumstantial evidence to piece together what happened. If the defense attorney can raise a reasonable doubt, charges should not stand.

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.

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Call our Colorado homicide lawyers for help…

For a free consultation to discuss your case, we invite you to contact us. One of our  Colorado violent crimes lawyers will respond to you quickly to help you begin planning your defense.

We represent clients throughout the state of Colorado – including, without limitation, in Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Fort Collins, Lakewood, Thornton, Arvada, Westminster, Centennial, and Boulder.

You can reach us through the confidential form on this page, or call us at our Denver home office:

Colorado Legal Defense Group
4047 Tejon Street
Denver, CO 80211
(303) 222-0330

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).

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