Should Johnny and Ponyboy be charged with murder or manslaughter? Why?

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Johnny should probably be charged with involuntary manslaughter given the fact that he had no intention of killing Bob Sheldon. The difference between murder and manslaughter concerns intent and whether or not the killing was premeditated or accidental. Manslaughter is unintentional, and Johnny did not intend to kill Bob Sheldon when he stabbed him. Johnny recognized that his friend was dying and stabbed Bob in order to stop him from holding Ponyboy underwater. Despite Johnny being charged with manslaughter, he would probably avoid the charge by pleading self-defense. Bob Sheldon and his Soc friends initiated the altercation, and Bob was attempting to drown Ponyboy, which is the reason Johnny intervened. In the novel, Johnny breaks his back while attempting to save children in a burning church and does not survive his injuries, which is why he does not go on trial.

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They might have been charged with manslaughter or second degree murder but would plead innocent with a reason of self-defense. The boys were waylaid by the Soc who have been drinking. He was the one who beat Johnny so badly before that Johnny's emotional state was damaged. The Soc was holding Ponyboy underwater in the fountain, nearly drowning him. Johnny's action of stabbing the boy saved Ponyboy's life. A lawyer with any sense would plead self-defense or even insanity in Johnny's case. A prosecutor might claim that Johnny killed him as a payback for the previous beating. I believe that with testimony from Cherry and Darry, that line of argument wouldn't hold up.

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Under United States law, murder is defined as:

the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought (The US Code, at Title 18)

This definition implies that the person or persons charged with the act had to have entered into the commission of the crime with the intention of doing harm. Murder is intentional.

Under United States law, manslaughter is defined as:

the unlawful killing of another, without malice, either express or implied; which may be either voluntary, upon sudden heat, or involuntary, but in the commission of some unlawful act (The US Code at Title 18, §1112)

In light of the circumstances, the logical charge would be manslaughter, but as has already been indicated, the likely outcome would be a defense of self defense.

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In my opinion, it would not matter -- they would end up being found not guilty no matter what the charge.  It would be very simple to win this case by claiming self defense (if they had a decent lawyer).

But as to the charge, it would definitely need to be manslaughter.  It is hard to argue that they really had meant to kill Bob even as they started to fight, let alone before the fight started.

If you look at the link I've provided, for example, it explicitly states that "mutual combat" is one of the factors that makes manslaughter rather than murder.

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