Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being done with malice aforethought. Malice is not necessarily an action done out of hate or spite, but, rather, is a state of mind that exists when an individual:

  • Intended to kill;
  • Intended to inflict serious bodily injury that causes the death of another; and/or
  • Behaved in such a way that exhibited extreme, reckless disregard to human life that results in the death of another.

An individual can be charged and convicted of murder even though their intent was not to kill. Under circumstances where an individual engaged in behavior that carries a high risk of death to human life, they can be convicted of murder.

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another that includes some mitigating circumstance. Manslaughter laws in California classify manslaughter as second degree murder. It is defined as the unlawful killing of another individual without the intent to murder. Manslaughter can occur when an individual kills another:

  • In a heat of passion;
  • During the commissions of another crime;
  • Due to negligence; and/or
  • Because of unlawful or grossly negligent motor vehicle operation.

Manslaughter and murder are differentiated by the defendant’s state of mind when killing another individual. Murder requires malice, premeditation, and/or planning. Manslaughter is the killing of another without malice, but with a conscious disregard for human life, and/or recklessness and/or criminal negligence. A murder charge can be reduced to a manslaughter charge depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident.

What is Voluntary Manslaughter?

There are not necessarily different degrees of manslaughter in California like there are degrees of murder, e.g., first-degree, second-degree, etc. California has three types of manslaughter:

  • Voluntary manslaughter;
  • Involuntary manslaughter; and
  • Vehicular manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the intentional killing of another without prior malice and in response to an adequate provocation. This charge is referred to as the heat of passion murder. In these cases, the defendant did not plan ahead of time to kill but became so upset or enraged, a murder took place. A common example is when a spouse comes home to find their husband or wife cheating on them with another individual and kills one of the two.

A charge of voluntary manslaughter is a lesser charge than murder. However, it is usually still a felony. This is because the defendant lacks the intent and premeditation to kill or cause serious bodily injury to another. Adequate provocation is an important element of this charge. Common types include:

  • An act or conduct of another sufficient to deprive a reasonable person of self-control;
  • The defendant was actually provoked by the conduct;
  • The was not sufficient time between the provocation and the killing for the defendant to cool off; and
  • The defendant did not cool off.

Cases of voluntary manslaughter may occur in one of the following manners:

  • The unlawful killing of another occurred during a heat of passion or sudden fit of rage;
  • The defendant committed an imperfect act of self-defense; and/or
  • The killing occurred while the defendant was committing a felony.

A defendant may have a murder charge reduced to voluntary manslaughter depending on the facts of the case. The defendant may be able to show the circumstances of the case do not meet the required elements of murder. If a charge is reduced, the defendant also faces a lesser punishment. Although it may be a lesser crime with a lesser punishment, it is still extremely serious and may cause life-long consequences for a defendant.

What is Involuntary Manslaughter?

Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing of another person. It is a lesser offense than voluntary manslaughter. In these cases, the defendant did not intend to kill another but they did. California law requires proof of two elements to charge a defendant with involuntary manslaughter:

  • The killing was committed in an unlawful way; and
  • The killing was committed with criminal negligence.

Involuntary manslaughter may also occur from a defendant’s unlawful act that was a misdemeanor or low-level felony. An example of involuntary manslaughter may occur when two individuals get into a fist fight and one ends up dying from a blow to the head.

What is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Vehicular manslaughter is an unintentional killing of another due to reckless driving. Reckless driving can include violating a traffic law or driving under the influence. Vehicular manslaughter laws vary by state.

California has two categories of vehicular manslaughter:

  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; and
  • Vehicular manslaughter.

California’s vehicular manslaughter laws define it as when an individual kills another while driving:

  • With gross negligence;
  • In an unlawful manner such as while committing a traffic violation or misdemeanor; or
  • For the purpose of financial gain.

What is the Sentence for Voluntary Manslaughter in California?

Voluntary manslaughter is considered a felony in California. Punishment for voluntary manslaughter cases in California ranges from 3 to 11 years in state prison. A defendant may also be required to pay a large fine of up to $10,000. A conviction may result in a strike on the defendant’s criminal record under the habitual offender laws.

What is the Prison Sentence for Involuntary Manslaughter?

In California, involuntary manslaughter is a felony. If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a defendant may receive 2 to 4 years in state prison. They may also be sentenced to formal probation and one year in county jail.

What is the Sentence for Vehicular Manslaughter in California?

California classifies vehicular homicide as a wobbler crime, meaning it can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case. If the defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor, they will face up to one year in jail, fines and possibly restitution. Felony conviction will result in 2 to 6 years in prison or up to 10 years in prison if the crime was committed for financial gain. The defendant may also be subject to fines.

Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is also a wobbler crime. It includes the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. If convicted, a defendant may receive 4 to 10 years in prison for a felony and up to 1 year in jail for a misdemeanor. Up to 6 years of incarceration may be added to the sentence if the surviving victim suffered bodily injury.

Do I Need a California Lawyer for Help with Manslaughter Charges?

Yes, any time you are facing a serious criminal charge, including murder or manslaughter, it is imperative to consult an experienced California criminal lawyer. These charges are felonies and can result in loss of rights such as owning a firearm.

A criminal lawyer can review your case, determine what if any defenses are available to you and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. How many years you get for manslaughter in California may depend on the adequacy of your defense presented in court.

It is important to have an attorney present so you do not inadvertently waive any of your rights. An attorney may also be able to negotiate a reduction in charges from murder to manslaughter, depending on the facts of your case. An attorney will fight for your rights and ensure you receive the best possible outcome for your case.