When presented with a defendant charged with the killing of another human being, most juries will be tasked with determining based on the specific facts of the case whether the defendant is guilty of murder or manslaughter.

The two criminal charges can be quite confusing as they both look at what the defendant’s state of mind was at the time of the killing. They are very different, however, in that in most states the defendant will be found guilty of murder if their actions were premeditated and intentional.

Conversely, manslaughter is the appropriate criminal charge when the defendant’s unintentional actions result in the death of another human being. There will be evidence of mitigating facts that show the defendant did not intend to kill the person.

Many jurisdictions further parse manslaughter into involuntary and voluntary manslaughter. Typically, voluntary manslaughter shows some element of provocation (heat of passion) whereas involuntary manslaughter shows the defendant failed to exercise some level of reasonable care which resulted in the death of another person.

A Closer Look at Involuntary Manslaughter

The precise definition of involuntary manslaughter (which is sometimes referred to as criminally negligent homicide) and the elements needed for the prosecution to prove its case will vary according to each state. However, the common element of involuntary manslaughter is that the killing was accidental.

In many cases, the prosecution will be required to show that the defendant’s action was grossly negligent. That usually means that the defendant’s actions demonstrated a gross (sometimes reckless) disregard for a reasonable standard of care. A common example of this is where someone kills a pedestrian while driving and texting or where a boat operator kills a passenger while sailing drunk.

Involuntary manslaughter may be a misdemeanor or felony depending on your state and on the circumstances of the case. This designation will dictate the severity of the penalty involved.

What are the Elements of a Involuntary Manslaughter Charge?

Again, the elements for a manslaughter case differs from state to state. However, there are some common elements. Those include facts showing the following:

  1. The defendant’s actions caused the death of another person;
  2. The defendant’s actions were inherently dangerous or done with reckless disregard; and
  3. The defendant knew or should have known that their actions would put the lives of another human being at risk.

It is important to note that not all of the actions undertaken by the defendant have to be inherently dangerous. For example, the installing of a scaffolding during construction is quite a normal activity.

However, if the scaffolding supervisor failed to properly secure the scaffolding and a pedestrian walking below is killed, the supervisor may be held criminally responsible and charged with involuntary manslaughter. Again, it will depend on the circumstances of the case and how the evidence is conveyed and applied.

What are the Potential Penalties and Sentences for Involuntary Manslaughter?

Driving your car carelessly even if not done under the influence of alcohol can result in the death of another person. Many states, however, make a distinction between that action and one where the driver deliberately drives their car into a crowd of pedestrians. The law recognizes the distinction between the mindset of the drivers in both scenarios and have penalties that reflect a varying degree of seriousness.

The sentencing guidelines at the federal level for involuntary manslaughter varies depending on the circumstances of the defendant’s case. For example, the 2015 federal sentencing guidelines for a base sentence for involuntary manslaughter is 12 months to 22 months, with the higher end of the sentence imposed based on whether the defendant’s action was reckless. The base sentence for 22 months is for an offense involving an automobile or boat.

While many state courts will refer to the federal sentencing guidelines when determining penalties, they will do so within their discretion, which means sentences may vary wildly from state to state. Keep in mind also that courts will look at any aggravating and mitigating factors to decide on final penalties.

The aggravating factors will be based on the unique factual circumstances of your case. The common aggravating factors considered by a court will include evidence of your prior record (especially if it involved a similar offense), the instrument involved, the number of victims, the relationship with the deceased and any cruelty involved in the commission of the crime.

Conversely, mitigating factors like the defendant’s mental state and the relatively minor role they played in the commission of the crime may help to influence the court to order a lower sentence. 

You can see that the aggravating and mitigating factors are very important in shaping an involuntary manslaughter case from its inception. Therefore, it is important that you make your attorney aware of any relevant factors as soon as possible.

Should I Consult an Attorney If I Have Been Charged with Involuntary Manslaughter?

If you are involved in a criminal matter, it is important to get the legal advice of a criminal attorney who practices in your state. They can help you vigorously defend against a charge of involuntary manslaughter and help you present the mitigating factors that may help reduce your sentence.